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 EC 2010 - Part Three

By Gary and Helen Blankenship – Tallahassee, Florida - USA

To Part One

To Part Two

To Part Four

To Part Five

In the first two parts, Oaracle begins the Everglades Challenge, makes it to the first checkpoint, and is now in the open Gulf of Mexico off Florida's southwest coast.

This part of the Everglades Challenge is basically a straight shot down the coast, hopefully in winds that don’t require tacking. It’s about 40 nautical miles from San Carlos Bay to Cape Romano and the turn toward Everglades City. It’s about five miles less if the winds are right to cut in at Caxambas Inlet on the south side of Marco Island, which allows sailing down Galavan Bay to Everglades City from the north instead of crossing the bay from the west.

About mid-afternoon, the westerly breeze picked up slightly, and a few whitecaps formed. It probably wasn’t necessary, but I put one reef in the mainsail and progress remained good. By late afternoon, the autopilot had been put away and as Naples passed by I could see the Marco Island high condos rising from the horizon ahead.

In the late afternoon on Sunday, the condos of Marco Island grow larger.

The plan was to go in Caxambas if the wind remained favorable, navigate up the river and anchor for the night by Helen Key – I was tickled with the notion of sending a SPOT message from there and Helen at home seeing I was at her namesake. The wind lightened and the reef came out as the sun dropped lower in the sky. It was clear we were in a race on whether there would be enough light to see Caxambas. It was around 7 p.m. – and just about full dark – when we ran for the entrance. At first it went well. Oaracle scooted in and the spotlight picked up the first two unlit channel markers, which were not shown on the chart but which I expected to be there. But the condos there are built almost to the water, seemingly close enough to reach out and touch. Sure enough, they blocked the wind as we got to the first marker. I hoped enough breeze would get through to keep me on my way, but when the wind came back, it had swirled around the high rises and came from dead ahead! A glance at the channel marker also showed that the tide was ebbing. High tide had been an hour earlier and I thought we might sneak in before the outbound flow started. Reflecting on the joys of short tacking at night in an unfamiliar, narrow waterway with unlit markers in a fluky wind while fighting the tide, I decided to head back out and go around Cape Romano. Oaracle picked up the northwest wind again, and slid out the inlet.

But things had changed. The dalliance with Caxambas had lasted only about 20 minutes but the wind seemed stronger and the seas steeper. The wind was also dead aft, which made me nervous about a gybe. Kice Island was close on the port side, but I couldn’t see it on the moonless night; only the GPS showed me how close it was. Heading away from the island risked a gybe, which I feared would flip Oaracle in the boisterous seas. Likewise, trying to lower the main to reef risked a gybe, or drifting into shore before that operation was complete. So it was white-knuckle time down to the cape. I tried easing the main, which was out to starboard, so the sail was actually forward of the mast. It didn’t produce rhythmic rolling, which some other rigs will do, but it did produce a heel to port. After a while, I sheeted the main back to even with the mast, which eliminated the heel and was a bit less nerve wracking.

The course as we unsuccessfully try to enter Caxambas Inlet, and then have a wild ride, complete with gybe, down to Cape Romano.

Then, when we were most of the way to the cape, the feared gybe came. But unlike my worse fears, Oaracle didn’t care and continued tearing through the seas. The SPOT showed that between Caxambas and Cape Romano, Oaracle’s straight line speed was 5.87 knots – a half knot or so over her theoretical hull speed. Allowing for the inevitable zig zags and the gybe, that meant her average speed was 6 knots or maybe a bit more, and certainly higher when surfing down some of the waves. Enough to keep me on my toes. Done at night when being tossed by waves that couldn’t be seen approaching and with invisible land nearby, it was a bit disconcerting. I used the gybe to alter course a bit and get some more distance from land. Then, finally in the dim light, I could see the cape. After making sure we were past, I gybed Oaracle back (again the boat handled the maneuver magnificently) and shot past the point toward the infamous shoals. Amazingly, the moment Oaracle passed the tip of the cape, the wind lost almost half its velocity and the seas smoothed over the shallow water.

When abandoning the Caxambas option, my rough plan had been to sail to Cape Romano and anchor behind it for the night. But now Wizard’s words echoed again – don’t waste favorable conditions. It was only around 8:30 p.m. and I still felt reasonably rested from my afternoon sleep. With high tide only a couple hours earlier, most of the water was still over the shoals and there wasn’t any other hazard between the cape and Indian Key Pass, which leads to Chokoloskee Bay and to CP 2. The passage over the shoals was my easiest yet; not even the bottom of the leeboard touched. I settled in, with Oaracle doing four to five knots, for the broad reach to Indian Key. After a couple hours and fighting drowsiness, I picked up the flashing green light that marked the entrance channel. In another hour or so, we were there. The original plan had been to enter the pass by going north of Indian Key, but with the wind still west of north, it seemed to make more sense to go south of the island and anchor behind it to get out of the now lightening breeze. It took a couple tacks, but we sailed about halfway up Indian Key and then pulled out of the marked channel close to the island and anchored. It was approaching 12:30 a.m. Even if I had had the energy, going on made no sense as I would have been beating against an outgoing tide in a narrow, dark channel. Waiting for morning, light, and a favorable tide was a no-brainer.

I took the time to eat, attend to a couple chores and then went to sleep around 1:30, with the alarm set for 6. I was close to the channel, but I reasoned there would be little if any boat traffic that early on a Monday morning.

That logic worked until 5 a.m. when what must have been the commercial fishing fleet in Everglades City went storming by, rocking Oaracle with a succession of wakes. I couldn’t really blame them, they were making a living and I was there for "fun." But it left me a bit grumpy to have my sleep disturbed. By 5:30 they were gone and I got another 30 minutes of light sleep before the alarm went off. Crawling out of the warm bedroll and cabin, the slowly brightening sky revealed only light winds. I made sure to eat a good breakfast – both oatmeal and instant eggs – and raised the anchor and the sail just before 7. After a couple of long tacks, we cleared Indian Key and made the first turn in the winding channel. But the wind died. The oars were installed, and I took off my foul weather coat, fleece shirt and one of the two polypropylene undershirts. There was so little wind that I left the sails up in case it returned at a favorable angle. At least there was a favorable current, and we made decent time. I was still adjusting to rowing without someone doing the steering and was careful to periodically look over both shoulders.

Rowing in Indian Key Pass early Monday morning, on the way to Checkpoint 2.

I was feeling somewhat smug about that, when having three channel markers in sight, I hit a fourth – apparently looking over each shoulder left a blind spot dead ahead. The marker – #13, no less – bounced down Oaracle’s starboard side and I managed to angle the oar to miss the pole. But the green triangle at the top snagged the top of the mizzen mast. The mast tip bent back and then with a snap cleared the marker. At the time I thought Oaracle was unscathed. But a later check showed one of the two bolts holding the mizzen mast mount to the transom had failed and there was a crack in the transom, although it was still structurally sound and solid. I kept rowing, but with a renewed caution about watching where I was going.

Oaracle eventually emerged into northern Chokoloskee Bay. Everglades City was across the bay and three miles to the south was Chokoloskee Island and CP 2. But what greeted us besides open water was a complete lack of wind. Nothing. Reluctantly, I began to row across channel toward Everglades City, and then cut south, around some shoals, towards Chokoloskee. A slight west breeze teased us about half way down the bay and we tried to sail, but the wind petered out after a quarter mile. Back to the oars. Oaracle touched the beach at CP 2 just after 10:30 a.m. I had spent over two and a half hours rowing.

Who needs sails when you have oars? Oaracle arrives at Checkpoint 2.
Getting ready to reprovision, do a couple minor repairs, nap, etc., before leaving Checkpoint 2. First solid land in more than 30 hours.

The checkpoint was being run by veteran WaterTribers Leon and Denise Mathis (Dr. Kayak and Sanddollar), and Leon generously loaned me his phone to call Helen – who wasn’t there. So I tackled other tasks. Signed in at the checkpoint box, hit the bathroom, bought some water and lunch at the convenience store. Another phone call got Helen and we caught up.

Next on the list was the mizzen mast. Duct tape went over the crack in the transom, and some line was lashed around the mizzen mast mount to solidify its position. The stop was livened when Dave Combs (DaveonCudjoe) pulled up, trailering his Sea Pearl. Dave had been capsized by two rogue waves on day one, and spent some time on his upturned hull before being rescued by Duncan Vaughn (Ika) on his O’Day 17. Undaunted and with help from a couple other WaterTribe members, Dave went out the next day and recovered his boat. It was missing the mizzen mast, boom and sail, but otherwise had suffered only minor damage. Dave, who exudes competence and good cheer, was already planning next year’s campaign.

High tide wasn’t until noon or so, and I wanted to make sure the tide was going out before I left. So I also took the time for an hour nap. I still felt good, not even particularly tired from the morning’s row but it seemed wise to add to the 6 hours of sleep I had managed so far. The prolonged stop also allowed meeting some other challengers. Mike Monies and Andy Linn came in on the Laguna Dos. Wizard arrived and left on Elusion. Channing Boswell (DancesWithMullet) came in on Mullet, his Blue Jay 14 – we had been side by side on the beach at Ft. DeSoto

I made one more phone call to Helen, and then shoved off at 2:30, a few minutes after DancesWithMullet. He planned to leave by Chokoloskee Pass; I planned to follow my track from 2008 and use Rabbit Key Pass.

Even with the 2008 track in my GPS, it was moderately tricky getting out. I once thought I was very close to the track and indeed was within 50 to 70 feet. But there was still a shoal patch between Oaracle and where the boat should have been. Oaracle squeaked over to the proper place with only a couple inches to spare. A moderate west to northwest wind had sprung up and a new tactic was tried. Rather than having the oars at the ready, I kept the paddle handy and hoped it wouldn’t be needed for any long stretches. That wound up working fairly well.

The route in Indian Key Pass and out Rabbit Key Pass to make the required stop at Chokoloskee, the second checkpoint. Lots of rowing and padding here!

The first part of the winding course out was somewhat difficult because it was hard on the wind and it was difficult in a couple places to point high enough. Once in the maze of mangroves, there was usually enough wind and the calms spots were short and easily paddled. I found it helped to start paddling while Oaracle still had momentum, rather than trying to start when the boat had nearly stopped.

At one point, I went around a corner and found a nice wind – from dead ahead. It was too much to paddle into and I wasn’t sure the oars would do much better. It was a narrow stretch, seemingly about 150 feet wide. There didn’t seem to be anything to do but trying sailing, and Oaracle responded like a champ, short tacking through with ease, making good progress (the current helped) and soon putting the channel behind us. A couple more turns, and I could see the open Gulf, albeit at the end of a longer, wider channel that required some long and short tacks before the northern Everglades turned us loose. It had taken only two hours to get through.

A 10 knot or so northwesterly scooted Oaracle down the coast. It was mostly cloudy, cool, but still pleasant.

Passing Pavilion Key after leaving CP2. A beautiful place to stop, if you have the time. But watch your food if you camp; the raccoons are relentless.

Pavilion Key was passed after a few miles, and the southerly course shifted a few more degrees to the east. This is another long stretch of the course for those not planning to stop, like between San Carlos Bay and Cape Romano. The weather forecast called for 5 to 8 knot northwesterlies, shifting to 5 to 8 knot notheasterlies overnight, which turned out to be an accurate projection. Progress was decent but not stellar, with the wind gradually easing.

A slightly bleary self portrait on late afternoon Monday of a sailor looking forward to some more sleep.

Shortly after 9 p.m., it all but died and I sat rocking a bit in the small waves. Oaracle was about two miles offshore, almost even with the entrance to Lostman’s River (where Noel and I had stopped two years earlier). After pondering the options, I decided to drop the main, anchor (the water was less than 10 feet deep) and try to ignore the rolliness of the small chop. I went below and climbed into the sleeping bag, drifting in and out of sleep wondering if I would get any real slumber in that motion. The next I knew, my watch said it was 3 a.m. The motion was calmer and it seemed the wind was still calm. But poking my head out showed that there was a light, steady breeze, from the northeast. Just as the weatherman had predicted.

To be continued next month...

*****

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