To Part One
To Part Two
To Part Three
To Part Five
In Parts 1, 2, & 3, Oaracle has cleared the first
two checkpoints of the Everglades Challenge, including the twisty
channels leading in to and out from the second checkpoint at Chokoloskee,
near Everglades City. After some calm weather allowed the skipper
to sleep, a light, fair breeze has come up to allow the boat to
continue down the Everglades coast.
Within a couple minutes the anchor was up, followed by the sail
and Oaracle was making a modest but steady progress. It was warmer
than the previous two nights, but I still felt comfortable keeping
a pair of long underwear on. Dawn produced the most spectacular
sunrise yet, a rippling of clouds tickled by an ever changing
pallette of deep reds, oranges, and yellows. Cathedrals indeed.
By itself, it was worth the 200 or so miles of sailing done so
Daylight also produced a couple more sights. One was a speck
of sail a bit behind and inshore of Oaracle. It turned out to
be DancesWithMullet. And ahead was Northwest Cape, the first of
Cape Sable’s three promontories. The wind also eased slightly
as DancesWithMullet, apparently catching a slightly better breeze,
slid by inshore. But then the weather gods smiled as Oaracle nudged
ahead, rounding Northwest Cape just before 9 a.m. The wind picked
back up. Two more hours saw us in the same position as we rounded
East Cape and began the 10 mile beat to Flamingo in light winds.
In the next two and a half hours, I managed to pass south of
the Middle Ground light, about a third of the way to Flamingo.
DancesWithMullet stayed further north, doing his tacking close
to shore. Just before Middle Ground, Joe Mullen and Ed Engel (Tyro
and Paddlecarver, and combined age something over 150) came whisking
by on their Hobie 18, both pointing higher and moving at least
twice as fast, creating a temporary jealousy at the higher performance
of the multi-hull. But then, they didn’t have a cabin at
the ready, complete with comfy cushion, pillow, and bedroll!
Once past Middle Ground Shoal, the length of the tacks increased,
the wind picked up a bit, and Oaracle made better time. After
a couple more hours, we crossed tacks again with DancesWithMullet
and surprisingly, our positions were unchanged, with Oaracle slightly
ahead. We continued that way for a few more tacks. Finally, about
an hour from Flamingo, the wind increased again. I should have
paused and tucked in a reef, but didn’t want to lose the
time, so relied on luffing the sail to keep the boat on its feet.
That affected speed and DancesWithMullet slipped easily by, and
made it into the Flamingo boat basin about five minutes ahead.
It had been fun sailing in company all day. We were met at the
dock by Noel, pursuing his goal of getting a shot of every competitor
as they arrived.
Our courses, though, now diverged. DancesWithMullet did a quick
check in and left, wanting to get through the first channels by
Murray and Clive Keys on the route around Florida Bay. With the
wind now south of east and predicted to remain there for at least
the next couple days, I too planned to do the around route, but
as it was about 5 p.m., decided to spend the night at the Flamingo
marina rather than risk getting caught in the unfamiliar channels
in the dark. I think I was seduced by the idea of a relaxed dinner
(a sandwich, cold Gatorade, and snacks from the convenience store),
a hot shower (that comes with renting a dock for the night), and
full night’s sleep. It also gave a chance for a chat with
Bob and Janet Bradford (NiteNavigator and NiteSong) who came in
with their six-person outrigger canoe. (They napped for a couple
hours and departed in the dark for an impressive finish.)
The last leg of the Everglades Challenge is deceptive. If you
make it to Flamingo, you’ve done well over 200 miles of
sailing in a variety of conditions. The finish line, a straight
line distance of 34 or 35 miles, seems just out of sight over
the horizon. You can almost smell it, all but touch it. After
all, you’ve probably sailed that equivalent distance in
seven or eight hours or less somewhere else on the course. But.
Of course there’s a "but." The name of this "but"
is Florida Bay – a series of shallow basins connected by
narrow, haphazardly marked channels (which are not particularly
well located on your charts, either paper or electronic). And
where the prevailing winds usually blow in your face.
In 2006, Chuck Leinweber and I had semi-favorable winds for the
first half of our crossing and head winds for the rest of the
way. We got stuck in four of the five channels but actually had
to get out of the boat only once – something not to be done
lightly in the knee-deep (if your lucky, it’s only knee-deep)
muck. It took us about 12.5 hours to get across and I considered
it a great feat of endurance. In three subsequent ECs, I have
yet to better that time. (Don’t tell Chuck, he’ll
get a big head) The crossing in 2008 with Noel was easier, but
was punctuated by three calms.
This year would be different. With a southeast wind, I would
be going around instead of through Florida Bay, sailing roughly
15 miles south, then 10 miles east and finally about 20 miles
northeast. The hardest part would come early, through a channel
that starts a few miles south-southwest from Flamingo. It runs
by first Murray Key and then Clive Key. Most of the channel runs
just east of south and could be a problem in a southeast wind.
(If you can’t make those channels, you have to backtrack
10 miles to East Cape before heading south.)
At least I would be starting with a good night’s sleep.
I was in the bedroll by 9 p.m. and got up at 5 a.m., to allow
plenty of time for breakfast and departing at first light. Jim
Czarnowksi and Elena Barnett (PenguinMan and OceanDiva) had come
in during the night and were also having a quick breakfast. They
planned to peddle their prototype tandem Hobie Adventure Island
sailing kayak (which Jim helped design) on the direct route across
Florida Bay. Although much shorter, they would be plugging directly
into the wind.
A reef was put in Oaracle’s main as a precaution, which
proved unnecessary once we emerged from the basin just before
7 a.m. – the wind was blowing about 8. The tide was low
and there were sandbars on either side of the channel. Progress
was steady, but somewhat sedate with the reefed sail but I decided
to leave it in. My plan for the upcoming channel was to set the
autopilot for steering, and make small corrections with the oars.
It worked out beautifully. The wind was usually too southerly
for the sail to fill, but rowing was fairly easy with the reefed
sail. Every so often a favorable wind slant would come along and
I could rest at the oars. The trickiest part was because of the
low tide, the channel was narrow (way too narrow for sailing)
and very shallow, seemingly only a foot in some places; at any
rate I had trouble keeping any part of the leeboard down in spots.
The deepest part seemed to be close to the pilings that marked
the west wide of the channel, but with little or no leeboard and
a wind setting that way, I didn’t want to get too close!
The charts show separate channels by Murray and Clive keys, but
it’s really one long channel, with another one intersecting
it from the west about halfway along. Google Earth gives a good
view. It seemed longer, but after an hour we were through and
into the basin south of Clive Key. The water was crystal clear
– and not very deep. I could keep only an edge of the leeboard
in the water, and consequently the first tacks toward Man of War
Key were not models of windward efficiency, even with the reef
shaken out. But after 45 minutes or so, we reached deeper water
and most of the leeboard was lowered and progress improved. Another
hour, a couple more tacks, and a freshening wind brought us to
Man of War Channel. It ran a bit west of south and was easily
passed under sail. Plus the water was deeper and the channel wider.
There seemed to be a current against us, but with a good wind
that was of no consequence as we slipped through.
Once through the channel, with Nine Mile Bank to our east, we
had wonderful sailing. The wind was perfect for being close hauled
with full sail; just a bit more and a reef would be needed. But
it held steady. Further, we had lucked into some sort of current
running from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic. According to
the compass, I was sailing 180 degrees – due south. But
the GPS showed a course of 175 degrees, a full five degree lift
into the wind. I had set a waypoint where the chart showed a prong
of Nine Mile Bank extending to the west, and expected with the
wind to have to take a short tack to get near it. But with the
east-setting current, I actually had to ease the sail to scoot
around the waypoint and miss the bank. We continued south, making
good progress and thankful that although hard on the wind, no
tacking was necessary.
Around noon, Oaracle’s first tack headed toward another
prong of Nine Mile Shoal, extending from its southwest corner
– I thought of it as the halfway mark of the shoal. A few
minutes later, I tacked back to the south and around 1 p.m. tacked
back. Oaracle had now come as far south as necessary to clear
Nine Mile Shoal and some shallow areas to its south, and was now
beginning the easterly beat to the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway,
which would be our route to the finish. A sharp lookout had to
be kept as I was trying to cut a few miles off the course by staying
north of the Gulf ICW where it meets the Atlantic ICW near Long
Key. The chart indicates mostly four and five foot water depths,
but interspersed here and there are some one foot depths. I took
this to mean there were shoals scattered here and there, but not
in an unbroken line. Sure enough, I soon spotted a shallow area
in front of us and skirted around it – thankfully the only
one we saw.
The water also got choppier, now that Nine Mile Shoal wasn’t
providing a barrier. And it also struck me that it wasn’t
as much fun as sailing directly through Florida Bay. It wasn’t
conditions, which made for good sailing, but rather the scenery.
On the direct route, there’s always something to look at,
either the shallow bottom, or nearby keys, or cormorants on channel
pilings. Here, I hadn’t seen the bottom since leaving Man
of War Channel, and the nearest keys were bumps on the horizon
to the north and northeast. Oh well.
At first the beating proceeded as well as could be expected.
But as Oaracle plowed east, the waves became choppier and it also
seemed the friendly, east-going current disappeared. Further,
starboard tack is where Oaracle made the necessary easting, but
the waves seemed to be more directly on the bow, making the ride
wetter and with more pounding. The port tacks to the south were
About 3, the wind picked up as did the waves. It became necessary
to tuck in a reef, which would stay in the rest of the day. The
weather radio reported the wind on Long Key, a couple miles to
the south, was a steady 13 knots (about 15 mph) gusting to 18
(around 21 mph). Definitely reefing velocity on Oaracle. The seas
got steeper as whitecaps formed and spray now regularly came over
the cabin and into the cockpit. I was over halfway to the ICW
– and hopefully some protection from the chop. At this point
the beating became a slog, a tiring grind of pounding through
the waves and taking spray. The D-cell powered bilge pump was
activated a couple times to return a few gallons of Florida Bay
from the cockpit to where it belonged. While it felt like the
conditions were slowing us, the GPS and SPOT records show our
progress remained good, doing four knots or better through the
choppy water and our VMG, despite all the tacking, staying well
over two knots. Probably some of the perception was due to fatigue.
We had been sailing for over eight hours and all but an hour or
two, when the autopilot was used in fairly benign conditions,
I had been at the oars or the tiller.
Oddly enough, it helped to know that even after beating to the
ICW, there would still be many hours of sailing left before the
finish line. This was just one part, not entirely unexpected,
of what I had known would be a long day. Just like rowing in the
channels, or beating slowly in shallow water, this had to be endured
to get to the next segment of the course. And I did have hopes
that once reaching the ICW, the water would be calmer.
The only real obstacle remaining on the long beat was to stay
south of Buchanan Bank, the tip of which I had marked with a waypoint
on the GPS. At 3:40, we passed Buchanan and began a three-mile
beat to Bowlegs Cut, where we would join the ICW. We got to the
cut, wet and happy, at 4:50. The water indeed was calm for the
cut, but the chop picked back up on the other side. It wasn’t
quite as bad, but a lot of spray was still flying. But once through
Bowlegs, it took only one short tack and about an hour to reach
the Shell Key Bank cut, an encouraging improvement in progress.
The short tack, taken behind Lignum Vitae Key (which produced
a burst of nostalgia as Helen and I had visited the key by kayak)
proved to be the last needed until just off the finish. The sun
was also nearing the horizon, providing another entertaining sunset.
The GPS again became vital to navigation as the light faded and
the electronics provided pinpoint guidance on channel and marker
We had a dogleg course from Shell Key Bank to the Cross Bank
Cut, the first part of which allowed us to ease off a few degrees
from hard on the wind – a luxury unknown since entering
Murray Key Channel just after sunrise. By 8 p.m., we had negotiated
the seven nautical miles to Cross Bank Cut and it was fully dark,
creating an eerie feeling as the ICW went between two banks of
mangroves, temporarily blocking the wind and bringing a short
stint with the paddle.
A short run past Ramshorn Cut and Upper Cross Bank led to a turn
in the ICW that had Oaracle, for the first time all day, broad
reaching. The boat surged ahead, frequently passing 6 knots and
sometimes 7, apparently smelling the finish line. The ICW doglegged
back to the northeast and Oaracle got into familiar waters past
Penguin Key – this is where we joined the ICW on past trips
doing the more direct route through Florida Bay. Three more miles
brought the boat to Baker Cut and the entrance to Buttonwood Sound.
It wast hard on the wind for a half mile or so, and then four
short tacks brought us into the lee of land, and the first cessation
of wind that day. A few strokes of the paddle landed Oaracle at
the finish line, the Bay Cove Motel in Key Largo. It was 10:23
p.m., the end of a 15-plus hour day. Overall, it had taken 4 days,
15 hours and 23 minutes to finish, a bit more than three hours
longer than DancesWithMullet, and a bit less than two hours longer
than PenguinMan and OceanDiva. Overall, we were 13th of the 40
boats that left the beach for the EC (16, or 40 percent, of those
did not make it to the finish), and fourth (of 13) in Class 4.
But those are just numbers. And as anyone who has finished an
Everglades Challenge will tell you, it’s a lot more than
Part five, the final part, is coming soon!