EC 2010 - Part Four

By Gary and Helen Blankenship – Tallahassee, Florida - USA

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 far.


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 definitely smoother.

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 locations.

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 mere numbers.

Part five, the final part, is coming soon!


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