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
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
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
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
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...