Friday, April 21, 2017

Boot Key to Tampa Bay

Day 1

The plan was to make it to Tampa Bay in one 48-hour jump, but everyone knows how cruiser plans work out. A heavy rain started to fall while we were still at the fuel dock in Boot Key, the first hint that the weather wasn't going to be exactly as forecast. We waited a bit, each of us having an internal argument over it being better to just go back and pick up the mooring, then wait some more for better weather. And I suspect, had either of us said as much to the other, that might have been exactly what we would have done. But we didn't. So we didn't.

Other than the rain, conditions going under the bridge and out into the Moser Channel were pretty much what we expected. So we drove on to exit the Keys and sailed into the Gulf of Mexico. There we found the wind was on the wrong side of the boat (at least according the forecast) and the sea state more confused than expected. At least the waves heights seemed about as forecast. We pressed on, not knowing that the last chance to avoid a thrashing had just been passed by.

The bridge on the Mosier channel

Twenty six hours after leaving Boot Key we got ready to drop the anchor behind Sanibel Island having, in the wee hours of the morning, decided to take our bail out option of Big Carlos Pass. The expected seas state of two feet or less on a two second period turned into waves of 3 to 5, occasionally seven, then a bit more than occasionally, eight or more. They hit us on the quarter, both pitching and rolling the boat in an ugly figure "8" motion that trashed my inner ear that set me to feeding the fish. Rough enough that, when we finally made it in, the hook dropped about five feet and hung. After climbing over the v-berth and into the anchor locker I found the spanking we had taken had twisted the 3/8" anchor chain into something that looked like a giant yarn ball formed at the paws of a demented kitten. It actually had knots in it.

Anchor finally set, we set about securing the boat in a bit of a daze. A shower to warm up and wash off the salt, fresh clothes, and a little food to help settle the stomach, were big steps toward feeling human again. Even though I was pretty beat, sleep came slow; a usual reaction for me as I tried to puzzle out just how I had managed to stumble into such a mess. Wind, waves, confused seas, lighting on the horizon, rain, how in the world had we ended up in the middle of all that? Where the forecasts that wrong? Did I miss something? Did the need to get on our way overwhelm the need to be careful?

No good explanations presented themselves. Sleep finally took over to put an end to what had become a very long day. We had managed the conditions we found, not hurt the boat, not gotten hurt ourselves. That is going to have to do.

Day 2

Except for a brief sunset assault of black flies (thankfully we have excellent screens), the anchorage at Sanibel Island was quite and calm, making for a good night's sleep. The plan for the day was simply to get near the inlet of Charlotte Harbor, staging for an outside jump from there to Tampa Bay. Sanibel to Charlotte may be the best piece of the ICW anywhere; no bridges and open enough that, should the winds be right, sailing is a good option. And it was an easy sail in light winds and on flat water.

Along the way, and for the first time in the years we have been out here, a passing Sheriff's boat turned on its flashing blue lights and pulled alongside. One of the three officers jumped aboard to check our papers and safety equipment. Deb took care of those details while I answered the questions of the other two. They insisted on knowing where where we kept the boat, our “St. Louis” home port-of-call catching their attention for some reason. It took several tries to get them to understand that we lived on the boat, full time, and didn't “keep” it anywhere. They then asked about our recent travels. Learning that we had been in the Islands for a while they wanted to know where we had checked in upon our return, (Miami) and, while we were in the Islands, if anyone had asked us to bring anything or anyone across with us (No). We talked about the weather and our recent thrashing being the reason we were in the ICW at all, and not in Tampa already.

Another bit of confusion was with our “check in”. They expected us to produce some piece of paper that showed us having complied, and it took a few minutes to explain that using SVRS doesn't leave a paper trail, at least on our end. Other than that it was completely painless and I'm sorry I didn't ask for the officer's names, for they deserve honest recognition. They were utterly professional and non-threatening (in spite of the big guns on their hips), but they were too far away for me to read their name tags. In any case, and in spite of my normally low opinion of all things “official”, they were excellent examples of what officialdom can be when the people involved have the character and the heart. Blue flashing lights, guns and all...there was nothing negative about the encounter.

The anchorage just south of the Charlotte Harbor Inlet was comfortable and very, very quiet. All the rest we could get would be good. Even though every weather source we could find suggested that the jump to Tampa Bay would be done in pretty good conditions, we were still getting over the first day's beating, and it would be a long day's sail to Tampa Bay.

Day 3

Up before dawn to lift the hook as soon as there was enough light to see. There was little chance we would make the inlet to Tampa Bay before dark, but wasting daylight seemed a poor way to start. Wind and tide were working against each other in the inlet, making for a bumpy ride out. With at least six other boats in the parade it was clear we were not the only ones taking advantage of the forecast.

The main had gone up right with a single reef right after the anchor had come on board. After clearing the inlet and turning north the jib spun out, the Beast went silent, and we headed off at better than 6 knots, hand steering for the time being. One of the quirks of Kintala is the wind vain / tiller pilot set-up. It takes a bit of rigging to change from one to the other. All the forecasts had the wind fading as the day went on, making most of the day a motor. And, about four hours in the winds did, indeed, fade away. We rolled up the jib, centered the main, woke up the Beast, engaged the tiller pilot, and kept going on flattening seas.

Everything according to plan and forecasts.

A little later Deb looked up and asked why, if the forecast had nothing but good weather in it for the next five days, the sky was full of mare's tails? I had noticed the same thing, and the only answer I could come up with was, “Well, someone, some where, missed something”. Usually mare's tails portend weather 12 to 24 hours out, but not always. And, truth to tell, all of the "positive" forecasts for the day had me a bit wary. If there has been a theme for this season's cruise it would be the blown forecasts and unexpected weather. The inlet to Tampa was still some 15 miles away. The hairs on the back of my neck were insisting that was 15 miles too far.

Sometimes being right is a major pain in the ass.

The wind started to back and build out of the north west. The forecast following seas of 2 feet or less gave way building seas directly on the bow. The tiller pilot gave up. Though the Beast was doing its best, it didn't have the horsepower needed to drive the boat through the heaving water. The staysail spun back out to help keep us going and, with the Beast, allowed us to point a few degrees tighter on the wind. But it wasn't enough. The inlet to Tampa Bay was directly upwind, and we just could not hold that point of sail.

The moment it became apparent that we simply had to tack back out into the Gulf of Mexico for an hour or more if there would be any chance of making the harbor was, perhaps, the lowest moment of my last few months. Kintala's bow was going completely under every few minutes, water gushing down the decks flowing over the toe rail, having completely overwhelmed the limber holes. A series of such hits would slow the boat to less than three knots, where she would wallow and struggled to get back up to speed before the next series of waves pounded her bow once again. We were now taking our second serious thrashing in just 3 days. Having to add miles to a trip that I really just wanted to end, frayed my last nerve.

But there was simply no choice. No amount of wishing, wanting, or even needing, to get out of the weather would make any difference. The only way out was out into the Gulf. So out we went.

The temptation, when tacking into weather like this, is always to turn to soon; a mistake that makes matters worse by forcing an additional series of tacks. But no one wants to go any further than they have to, adding more miles that will be covered at barely walking speed. The first tack we made got it wrong. The second one got it right and we made the entry not long after the sun went down. Inside Egmont Key the seas settled to nothing but big, rolling swells. A bit later the staysail rolled in clean and the main dropped into the lazy jacks. By the time we made it to an anchorage, got the hook set and the deck minimally prepped for the night, it was after 2300 hours.

Day 4

The plan was to sail up to Tampa and take a dock or mooring ball for a few days. But a morning phone call to the marina uncovered that they are completely full, and will be for the near future. Instead we motored into Snead Island and settled Kintala into the dock that will be “home” for the next six months or so.

Over the next several days we plan to rent a car and take a night in a hotel in Tampa just to do something different. Next week it will be off to St. Louis for a much needed visit with Daughters (3), family, and friends.

It will take a few days, at least, to let the adventures of the last few months take their place in our life's story. For now I am glad to be settled in, safe and secure, not having broken anything major, not having made any major bone-headed moves that ended in disaster. And I will not be the least bit sad to be off the boat for a while.

But I am also sad to be stopping, even if it is only temporary. Mixed emotions that don't really make any sense. So I am going to just set them aside for now. The days will unfold as they will and we are, to a large extent, just along for the ride.


Fritz Gilbert The Retirement Manifesto said...

TJ, I love your stories, and the video clips were a great addition to the story. Enjoy your time "back home" in St Louis, I can't wait to be back on the water with you (vicariously) in 6 months!

TJ said...

Fritz, thank you, some of our stories are harder earned than are others! We hope to get some local sailing in before it gets too hot to do anything but seek out air conditioning, then I might have some "you will not believe what I found" stories from fixing boats.

Phil Gow said...

Thanks for telling it like it is, and not rose-tinting it all. My sailing experiences at times have had some of the same "Does it have to be like this-what exactly am I doing wrong or should have I done differently ?" quality to them. Somehow I think that's what ultimately pulls me back for more, in some perverse way.

Anonymous said...

TJ when are you going to be back in the Tampa area? We are sort of neighbors. My wife and I live in Palma Sola Bay section of Bradenton. I have been reading your blog for awhile. Great stuff. Enjoy your visit
Ben Tudor.

TJ said...

Ben, Kintala is at the dock in Snead Island. Deb and I took a short vacation from being on the boat and are at a B&B in St. Pete. Later this week we are headed for St. Louis for a couple of weeks for a much needed visit. After that we will be settled in for the season of work.