Thursday, April 11, 2013

2013 Everglades Challenge: Cp2 to Flamingo

1:58pm. We arrived at the infamous Chokoloskee. Infamous for it's thick sticky mud. We came to a halt and since I had my drysuit on I was the obvious choice to made the trudge to the lock box. Dad hit the OK button on the spot and I made my way to the "beach". I actually didn't have too much trouble with the mud this year, just took it slow and steady and got it done. I signed the log book, filled the water bottles and threw away some trash. I was moving quickly thinking that every second we weren't moving the 17 was adding to their lead.

I made it back to the boat and we pushed off. I made sure to wash the mud off my boots before stepping into the boat. We slowly crawled away from the shallow mud steering with the sails with the boards up until we were far enough away from the mud to avoid getting stuck again. Then we turned away and headed around the island. We proceeded to navigate a carefully choreographed path south away from Chokoloskee to the entrance to Rabbit key pass. We have found it easiest for the skipper to also have control of the GPS in this area since the lag time between... "turn right", "no more right!", "RIGHT!" is just too much for the winding path through the oyster beds. With the sun in front of us and a following wind, you only get one shot at making it through without lots and lots of horrible noises produced by oysters against the thin epoxy coating that is the bottom of the boat. This year we performed as close to a textbook route through the oysters as we ever have and into the deeper pass. The current that was in our favor coming in was now raging against us in the narrow and winding mangrove channel. In some areas we were making just one boats length of progress per tack into the unrelenting wind and tide.  Fortunately we had enough width to tack out. During past years and lower tides, we have had to row through some of the narrowest sections much like the row out of Cp1. We probably put 50 or more tacks in to get out and on a heading for the point of Rabbit key.

We made it! We were on a screaming reach heading away from the islands and back into the gulf. And then we saw them. Off the starboard beam a mile or so away I spotted the CS17. They must have taken the other route to the gulf (Chokoloskee pass) and in so doing we popped out right beside them. After an hour of offing we were on the same line and running on a heading just west of dead down wind. The drag race had begun. Our average speed between Choko and Flamingo was 5.5 knots but I can assure you that we spent many of the next nine or so hours at or above 8. The wind would lighten and the 17 would pull away slowly then it would build again and we would pull them back in. We spent most of the time wing on wing but occasionally on a deep reach on starboard to keep on our rhumb line. The sun was getting dimmer and we still had to cook our dinner. In these surfing conditions we kept our weight as far back as possible and dinner had to be made in the cockpit sole. The cabin was basically off limits.  I was up for the task and did it as fast as I could. Our jetboil makes this difficult task possible because it boils water so fast. We don't have a mount for the stove so you have to hang onto it the whole time. I got the two freeze dried meals done and we took turns eating and driving.

Dad was enjoying the surfing conditions but we were both in a state of ever present alert because we were still carrying full sail in a lot of wind. Surfing is fun but you have to remind yourself that your still in a 20 foot dinghy. As Dan Neri and I joked after the race Core Sound boats feel like much bigger boats in these conditions thanks to their hull form but at any moment your situation could change dramatically, i.e., a capsize. It was getting dark now, the wind was increasing. We were still "ok" but could we do this for the rest of the night? There was no chance of sleep in these conditions. As theses things weighed in our minds another gust came and we felt a surge of speed. It pushed us onto a big swell and the boat rocketed onto a plane. The boat is smooth and easy to steer at this speed like a car on the highway, it just takes a tiny movement to maneuver down the wave. With that speed however, also comes the realization that bad things can happen just as fast. We didn't come off of plane for a long long time. Water was spraying out from the sides of the boat. The mainsail was starting to luff as the apparent wind shifted forward.  Then we finally caught up to a swell of equally large size and plunged into it from behind. The boat felt like it was going to dive like we were steering down into a hole in the water. I remember leaning back and focusing all my energy on keeping dead straight down the wave. The bow hit the swell and sliced it perfectly in half causing a wall of water to eject out from either side of the bow. All I could see in front of us was water, cabin and more water. The boat decelerated and buried itself deeper into the swell until we were now on-top of it. At this point we were once again set up to catch and surf down this swell just like the last and that is exactly what we did.

This continued a dozen more times as the the sky continued to dim. Had it not been for the steepness of the swell I'm sure we would have arrived in Flamingo by now but running into the backs of the swells was like driving over huge wet speed bumps. We could see Dan and Phil experiencing the same conditions although from our perspective, they seemed to be riding over the tops of the waves a little easier no doubt thanks to their light weight construction I thought. With darkness falling it was getting a little ridiculous, surely we couldn't do this for another 4 hours in the dark. We were tired and moving at incredible speed. Capsizing in the dark in 6 foot swells is an unpleasant thought. We plunged into another massive swell at warp speed and the boat decelerated back down to 8 knots. Right when I was ready to say, "Ok that's enough, lets reef", I looked over to our right and saw Phil and Dan had beat me to it. We followed suit right away and rounded up for a reef.

We eased the main and sheeted the mizzen in hard. Once head to wind, I pulled the rudder up as well. In higher winds we have trouble getting the boat head to wind for reefing with just the wind-vane effect of the mizzen perhaps due to the extra windage from the cabin. But with the rudder up the stern is free to swing around and the boat happily points into the wind. In this case one must take care when putting the rudder back down because your moving backward pretty fast so the rudder can get slammed hard over. I let the halyard down to the new position and slacked off on the snotter. We don't have jiffy reefing lines rigged so we have to manually insert the end of our sprit boom into the reefing clew strap. It took a couple of tries but we got it done. I went forward carefully to hook the downhaul in the new tack grommet and lash the forward reefing lines while dad tied the aft ones accessible from the cockpit. We readjusted the snotter and downhaul and were ready to go. Rudder down, main in, fall off, ease sheets and bear away.

Phil and Dan were already moving again when we got back on course and the boat felt easier and more stable with the reef. The change didn't hurt our speed though and when its past time to reef, it usually never does. We were still blasting down the swells on a plane no problem. We were pulling away from Phil and Dan and I was having trouble seeing them now. They were right behind us but the height of the swell made them only occasionally visible. We thought they must have put more than one reef in and maybe we should have done the same. I didn't really like not being able to see their lights. We had been surfing in pretty big conditions all evening but knowing that another boat was right alongside was comforting in case something bad did happen. Now it seemed we were both on our own and all the more reason for shortening sail.

The sky was crystal clear, calm and still in stark contrast to the wind and water below. The stars were out in force and I spent the next few hours steering by them. We started breaking up the distance to help us stay alert. "10 miles to Cape Sable, 5 degrees to port", dad would say, and I would shift my attention to the next bright star over. In this area the water is only about 8 feet deep but you would never guess it by the height of the swell. Incredible really, as we made the final turn around East Cape we squeezed through between the cape and the green '1A' marker. We saw a campfire on land in the darkness about 50 yards away and some flashlights jerked around in our direction. Probably not watertribers and we must have seemed like a ghost ship in the night to them. We traded the steep swells for the lumpy but flat shallow water of the sheltered bay and as soon as it calmed down we shook the reef in the main knowing that the 17 was close behind.

Dad said, "you should get some sleep, I can sail until we get to the channel", I had been at the helm practically since sunrise so I was tired but it didn't occur to me at the time that I was still ahead on sleep. I didn't argue though. in 2011 we both zonked in Florida Bay when we underestimated the crossing time and ended up rowing the last 1/4 of the bay in the wee hours in a zombie like state. We didn't want a repeat of that so I jumped in the cabin and fell immediately to sleep. I woke to dad saying "we're there" and I took back over. The wind was light and we were moving about 4 knots. I couldn't see the 17 behind us but I was sure they were there.

We turned up into the channel and immediately realized that we would have to tack to make it through. The wind was light and I held the tack as long as I could until we came to a silent stop as the centerboard hit the mud. Crap. We got going again on the other tack only to repeat the start stop maneuver a few more times. I looked back at the entrance to the channel knowing we should see them any minute and sure enough I spotted their nav lights. "There they are, coming into the channel, their right behind us!", I said. "Should I get out an oar" dad asked, "yeah", I said, "good idea", so with dad rowing on one side the added boat speed kept us going longer on that tack but again we stuck in the mud. Crap. The edges of the channel were impossible to anticipate and in the darkness, lining up the day markers to draw an imaginary line was a difficult task. They were definitely gaining on us. With dad rowing on one side and the boat stuck, we started spinning. "stop stop", i said "were just spinning around". "well, I can row on the other side" he replied as he switched oars. "yeah yeah good idea". That spun us back around and in no time we were headed back across the channel but I couldn't tack with him rowing on one side and we ended up in irons and this time backed up into the mud. Crap. "They're getting closer!", I said.  "I could row on both sides" dad said finally, and we laughed at our own stupidity. Maybe we were more tired than we thought. With both oars pulling, we easily, albeit slowly, climbed up the last half of the channel with just one more tack.

We sailed past the concrete wall and rowed through the narrow entrance into the Checkpoint. Ridgerunner was there to greet us and told us where the lockbox was. We were hoping to get in and out as fast as possible and since the Spot "OK" message is the official CP time, dad asked Ridgerunner, "Do we actually have to sign the logbook?...with a pen?". Meaning can we just use the Spot and stay in the boat. He replied, "Oh no, you can use a pencil." Dohh, it didn't really matter anyway since the Spot takes a few minutes to send the message so we signed the logbook anyway. If your Spot message fails, it's nice to be able to prove you were there anyway. Dad spoke to Ridgerunner briefly as I signed in and as soon as the Spot was done sending we were off again just after midnight.

We rowed back out and slid into the bay in the light following wind. Phil and Dan were just outside the entrance to the checkpoint and as we passed I think i said, "Man you guys are fast, good luck in the Bay". To which they replied, "You too, are you going across tonight?". "Yeah", I said. But that was all we could get across. We over analyzed the short exchange, were they not going across tonight? That hadn't really occurred to us since we never planned a stop and at this point I was pretty sure the class 4 record was within our grasp. We realized though that we had crossed the bay many times before and this was their first time. Our gps track of previous crossings combined with mental pictures made it possible for us to be confident navigating the channels in the dark. We quickly sailed out of Flamingo and turned east onto a reach. There was no sign of them leaving the CP so we assumed they were stopping. It was our race to lose.

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