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 EC 2010 - Part Two

By Gary and Helen Blankenship – Tallahassee, Florida - USA

To Part One

To Part Three

To Part Four

To Part Five

The first big decision had to be made: inside or outside? The forecast for the day was north winds, 10 to 15. The breeze had an easterly component at the start, but I expected it could shift to northwest, and perhaps freshen, as an afternoon land breeze kicked in. Inside meant following the Intracoastal Waterway through wide bays and through some narrow areas where the breeze might be partially blocked. It would save time sailing outside to the Gulf of Mexico and then sailing back in through potentially tricky inlets to make the first checkpoint. Very doable in moderate and strong northerly winds. But if it went light the wind would be steadier out on the Gulf, more than compensating for the extra distance. Also the outside course would bypass a couple draw- or swing bridges too low for even Oaracle's short mast. Taller rigs might be faced with opening six or more bridges.

The view from Oaracle of other sailboats and sailing kayaks as I leave the starting beach.

I opted for the inside, gambling the wind would remain steady. Most of the sailing part of the EC fleet launched before me and it was soon evident that my "inside" strategy would be a lonely one. The rest of the sailboats, and some of the sailing kayaks were headed out the mouth of Tampa Bay into the Gulf.

Oaracle didn't seem to care, speeding across Tampa Bay averaging over five knots. We zoomed down the waterway, negotiated some turns behind islands, which blocked the wind a little, and went under two bridges without having to open them. Approaching northern Sarasota Bay, the wind began to lighten. Those closer to Sarasota we got, the slower we went. The speed dropped to around 2 knots, and sometimes slower. Nearby, there were four or five fleets of racing boats, including two of Optimists prams, and they had entered the creeping phase too. It seemed the boats "outside" on the Gulf had made the right decision.

Around 1 p. m., the racing fleets in front of me seemed to be moving better. A few minutes later the wind reached Oaracle, and the speed improved. By the time we reached the first bridge in Sarasota, we were making 4 knots or so, and it felt faster. I surmised an adverse current, but as we passed Big Sarasota Pass that changed. Channel marker poles and bridges for the next several hours showed a good, favorable current helping us on our way.

Oaracle was soon joined company with three red kayaks, sporting V-shaped downwind sails - I think they were in the Ultra Marathon. Oaracle would surge ahead on the open parts of the course as we sped through Roberts Bay and then Little Sarasota Bay, the kayaks would take the lead in the more protected parts. The wind also had shifted, from somewhat east of north to around NNW - the expected land breeze component. Fortunately, that had us broad reaching and running. Most of the way through Little Sarasota we were doing upwards of 6 knots and then a strong, prolonged gust hit us, something easily over 20 knots. Oaracle pushed ahead even faster, leaving a white, foaming wake, but fortunately staying well mannered and under control. After about 30 white-knuckled seconds, I glanced at the GPS. Oaracle was making 8.1 knots, and had peaked at 8.7 - a bit more than 10 mph. Oaracle has gone faster surfing down waves, but I believe that is her flat water speed record. (Out on the Gulf, the breeze kicked up considerable waves and capsized two competitors, both of whom were rescued by other WaterTribers and both of whom eventually recovered their boats. Many of those competitors recorded speeds in the double digits as they surfed down waves.) Our speed dropped under 8 but the wind remained strong, so after a few more minutes, I dropped the sail and tied in a double reef. A single reef probably would have been sufficient, but the skipper still had some nerves about carrying too much sail while single handing. According to the SPOT, my average speed for the preceding couple hours had been between 5.3 and 5.5 knots - and that doesn't allow for the zig zags in the ICW, and the narrow parts where the breeze was partially blocked. The Blackburn Point swing bridge was coming up and I decided to leave the main lowered until we cleared that span.

We were averaging (with an assist from the current) 3.5 knots with just the 12 square-foot mizzen, and hit over 4 knots a couple times in the gusts. I called the bridge tender on the VHF radio and coordinated the opening. The alarm bell sounded and the gates came down, barring any traffic. The bridge got closer and I waited for the bridge to begin to swing, as Oaracle swept closer. But the bridge didn't open. Instead the bridge tender sauntered out toward the middle of the span. It was obvious that was where the relevant switch was. It was also obvious the bridge wouldn't open in time. The channel was narrow at the bridge, and the wind was a bit fluky but still strong. While Oaracle will reach and run under mizzen alone, she doesn't point well. She lost way as we reversed course to struggle away from the bridge, and wound up drifting into a small cove on the east side of the channel. That turned out to be shallow and the leeboard kicked up and any chance at controlling the boat was lost. With a crackling sound, we slid into the mangroves along the shore, showering Oaracle with twigs and leaves. About then, Jonathan Coble (Running Mouth) came along in his Kruger Seawind with Balogh sailing rig and stood by as I got out the oars and began fighting the wind to get back into the channel. He later related that the bridge tender, who had his back to me, turned around and tried to figure out where I had gone, Oaracle now being out of sight. Not realizing what had happened, he closed the bridge, finishing just as I came, puffing at the oars, back into the channel. Another radio call straightened things out and he good naturedly reopened the bridge without delay and this time I slid through, chatting with Running Mouth. Once clear, the reefed main was promptly raised.

The next hour was pleasant as Oaracle made good progress, passing one more (promptly opening) drawbridge, and arriving at Venice Inlet. Oaracle followed Running Mouth away from the inlet (I was concentrating on following the channel; if I had turned around I would have seen John Wright (Karank) entering the Venice Inlet from the Gulf in Grok.

In the narrow Venice Canal on Day 1. A northerly wind is necessary to sail here.

I would have liked to chat with him!) to the start of the Venice Canal, a narrow, sheltered waterway leading to Lemon Bay. It may be narrow, but it's very practical in a northerly wind. According to the SPOT, we averaged almost 4.5 knots again, not allowing for the turns in the canal. Running Mouth, paddling in the areas where the wind went light, slowly pulled away. Watching him, I became more and more impressed with the Kruger canoe and the Balogh sailing rig. After less than two hours, Oaracle was at the bridge that marks the start of Lemon Bay, as the last of the daylight faded. The wind also lightened and after passing the bridge I shook out both reefs in the sail.

It took about 2.5 hours of pleasant albeit very watchful sailing to traverse Lemon Bay, and the mapping Garmin GPS was worth its weight in gold. While the bay is reasonably wide, the waters outside the channel have several shoals, and are studded with unlit, uncharted signs for no wake zones, manatee areas, and underwater cables, as well as private channel markers. The GPS not only helps stay in the channel, it shows when the unlit channel markers (which are very accurately marked in the electronic charts) are getting close. Vigilance with a good flashlight is essential.

The night was cold, the prediction on land was for low to mid 40s, but it was probably a little warmer on the water. The cool temperatures kept other boat traffic to a negligible level; almost any other boat seen was a WaterTriber. I was glad for my long underwear, fleece, and foul weather gear. I was particularly glad for the wool watch cap and scarf my wife, Helen, had knitted for me. They helped ward off the shivers.

Oaracle slipped down the narrow canal leading from Lemon Bay and emerged into Gasparilla Sound around 10 p. m. Checkpoint 1 was getting close.

But not too close.

The route in and out of the first checkpoint.

The boat ran down the waterway to the Gasparilla swing bridge, passed through without trouble, and then passed the open, abandoned railroad bridge beyond. A flashing red channel marker designates the spot where a private side channel starts, the first part of the route to the checkpoint. The wind had veered enough that Oaracle couldn't sail up that channel, so the sail was quickly dropped and I broke out the oars. It was cautious going; the wooden poles marking the narrow channel had reflective markers but were unlit. It was row a few strokes, check for markers, row a few strokes, check. . . . About halfway up the channel, there was a mud bank and seawall on the north side and I pulled over to drop the mast. For a moment I was confused; where did I turn north into a wide creek to get to CP 1? It soon sorted out and I continued further up the channel and soon found the right place to turn - and a new problem. Oaracle was becoming hard to control with the pattern of rowing a few strokes and stopping to look around. We wound up in the mangroves a couple times working toward a low fixed bridge that constituted a "filter" on the way to CP 1.

Finally getting to the bridge, a paddle was substituted for oars - the bridge pilings are too close together for rowing. We got past unscathed, and then through a new bridge just past the older span. This was wide enough for rowing, but I kept paddling to save the hassle of reshipping the oars in a constricted space. Once past the bridges, it was back to the oars and past an abandoned bridge that stops partway across the creek. Then the control problems started again. I hit the mangroves again, and dodging a boat that appeared anchored in the creek. I wound up on the wrong side of the channel, with a mud bar separating Oaracle from the deeper water, and me wondering why I couldn't control the boat. I finally made the turn toward Grand Tours, the kayak rental place that serves as the first checkpoint and, after bouncing off the mangroves a couple more times, made it to shore. It was a few minutes before midnight.

There was no place to securely tie up, but Oaracle settled into a niche by the dock more or less on her own. It would do for a while. I hit the shore and did the normal things. Signed it at the checkpoint box. Hit the bathroom. Had some dinner. Refilled a water bottle. Warmed up a little by the fire with some other WaterTribers. Pondered what to do.

The poor performance rowing to the checkpoint had left me discombobulated, wondering whether I was overtired by singlehanding. There's wasn't a good place to tie up at the checkpoint, but I considered pulling out to sheltered water just past the bridges, or at nearby spoil islands, and anchoring for the night. Matt Layden (Wizard) made up my mind. He had arrived in his 9-footer, Elusion, about the time I did. After he took care of shore chores, he said, in his quiet way, he was going to shove off so as not to waste the favorable wind. He was up creek from Oaracle and apologized for coming within a few feet as he left, noting there was a strong current running. A double light bulb went off in my head. First, I shouldn't waste the good conditions. Second, the current - hard to see in the dark - explained why getting up the creek had been so difficult. In past challenges, there was always a second person along on Oaracle, who not only watched the course but steered with the rudder while I rowed. By myself, the rudder was raised, and I had to turn around every few strokes to check the course. That, naturally, slowed the boat's momentum and allowed the current to push the bow off one way or the other. No wonder I had zig-zagged from mangrove to mud bank.

Preparations for departure were completed, including adding a second layer of long underwear against the cold and filling a thermos with boiling water for hot drinks during the night. A little under two hours after arriving, Oaracle left, with some help to avoid getting carried by the current into other boats. And leaving with the current was much easier. About the only problem was getting to the abandoned bridge much quicker than anticipated. I nearly ran into it. Once past all the bridges, we stopped at a small beach among the mangroves and raised the mast, and then cautiously rowed out the unlit side channel, back to the ICW. Once there, the main went back up and we proceeded southward in a light wind, making about 3 knots.

Other than the cold, it was pleasant sailing. The ICW was wider, with fewer markers. There weren't any unlit signs or private markers - at least I didn't see any. There were spoil areas to avoid, but the navigation and sailing was easier. After a couple hours, the wind increased slightly and Oaracle speeded up to between 4 and 5 knots. Boca Grande Inlet was coming up when I had the worst moment of the challenge. It came with the realization that my cell phone, which I had plugged in at CP1 to top up the charge, was still there. That meant I wouldn't be able to talk to Helen, something I had counted on doing several times a day as a source of company. There was nothing to do but resolve to send more frequent SPOT updates so Helen would know I was okay despite the lack of calls. (Marty Sullivan, running the EC and CP1 this year, realized it was my phone and called Helen to let her know she wouldn't be hearing from me.)

Boca Grande Inlet was passed around 5 a. m. The ICW there turns from south to a more southeasterly direction, winding its way through shoals and several islands, before heading southerly down Pine Island Sound. On this part, I began to feel the fatigue from about 24 hours of nonstop activity. The worst symptom was the flashing lights on the channel markers would appear as lines, rather than dots to my weary eyes. But that passed as the sky began to lighten in the east into a lovely sunrise. As always, a line from L. Francis Herreshoff, undoubtedly borrowed, came to mind, about worshiping in cathedrals not made by human hands.

Sunday morning, entering the wide, straight part of Pine Island Sound . . .
. . having just negotiated a slightly twisty part through some islands.

With the sun came the straight run down the sound. By 8:30, we were near the southern end and after carefully checking the charts, cut a corner by York Island as the channel went from southerly to easterly. The wind had enough east in it now that a series of short tacks were necessary before turning south to pass through the Sanibel Causeway, to exit the sound via San Carlos Bay to the open Gulf of Mexico. We passed under the west end of the causeway at 10 a. m. and headed for the open Gulf. In past years, I had tacked along the bridge to the marked channel closer to shore before turning south - always, it seems, a choppy stretch of water. This time, I stayed straight past Point Ybel. The chart shows a shoal, but also a deep enough area around it so a course was set to slowly close the shore, where hopefully the water would be a bit calmer with land providing a bit of a lee from the northeast breeze.

I was beginning to feel a bit weary. Not exhausted, but it was hard to concentrate to keep the course straight. So the Oaracle's secret weapon was brought out. This year, I was carrying a 31 AH 12-volt battery for the running and compass lights. The calculation was there was enough extra juice available to run my autopilot, temporarily transferred from our 30-foot boat, for several hours. A small solar panel was also among the ship's stores, but it wasn't large enough to allow continuous autopilot use. Up until now, I had used the tiller locking system suggested in 2006 by Chuck Leinweber of Duckworks Magazine. It did well in calmer waters and while hard on the wind, and freed me for small chores. (I highly recommend this or something similar for small boats; even when you have to keep a hand on the helm, it reduces the work and strain of steering.)

Splashing down the Gulf of Mexico between Pine Island Sound and Cape Romano.

Now the autopilot took over and steered a straight course. I didn't dare go to sleep as there was too much other boat traffic around, and we were still closing with the shore, but it was nice to be relieved of tiller duty after more than 24 hours at the helm.

Oaracle continued to make good progress, but as we closed the shore, the wind shifted from northeast to northwest and eventually west - an afternoon sea breeze. Not long after the course was adjusted to parallel the shore, and other boat traffic almost ceased. Nothing was coming near us. I set my watch countdown timer and stretched out on the cockpit, holding the sheet in my hand. Popping up to periodically check, I got an hour's good sleep, and another half hour dozing and resting. It was the first sleep since leaving Ft. DeSoto and was most welcomed!

To be continued next week...

*****

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