Thursday, April 18, 2013

Everglades Challenge 2013: Flamingo to Key Largo

The exciting conclusion...

We were off on a reach into the night. Tin Can channel was moving swiftly past us. We were making great time and feeling pretty good. We were very aware at this point that the Class 4 course record was within grasp but we just kept going trying not to make mistakes. Dad was on the GPS announcing adjustments to the heading and I was driving and working our big spotlight, lighting up day markers and keeping the boat in the deep part of the narrow channels...usually. We were on a reach most of the time so we only had to worry about steering to the markers with only occasional sail adjustments.

The main channels are all marked with wooden stakes anywhere from 25 to 100 yards apart depending on the straightness of the channel. They range in height from a few inches to 6 or more feet. Almost all have reflectors at the top and almost all have indicators telling which side of them you ought to pass them on. The indicators are just angled bits of wood screwed to the top which "point" to the correct side. More on those later. Sometimes a marker lacks the indicator and if the channel is curving you may not be able to tell which side to stay on until it's too late. Assuming there is enough water depth to begin with, this is the most common scenario for sailing out of the channel and into the mud. If that happens in a blow, you could be pushed farther off the channel when you raise your centerboard or rudder and strand yourself downwind of the channel with no way to sail back up into it. This is why you hear sailors tell stories of dragging their boats in Florida bay with snowshoes...yes snowshoes. Similarly, a disoriented paddler might run aground and try to get out and walk back to deeper water. The mud is soft and deep and one could easily lose their footing, lose track of the boat or paddle for an instant, and then look up to see their now unburdened vessel floating happily downwind in 3 inches of water out of reach and up shit creek. These are the kinds of situations Florida bay is known for. We always try to hug the upwind side of the channel. If you run around on the upwind side its no big deal, just allow yourself to be blown back into deep water. Of course it's impossible to follow that rule all the time especially when a marker is positioned on the edge of the downwind side of the channel and you sail to the wrong side of it.

We zipped passed Bouy Key and got on course for the Dump Key cut. The wind was still strong out of the WNW and we actually got up on plane doing 9 knots plus at some points in the flat water of the bay. The moonlight was beautiful as it reflected off the water and through the sails making them glow in the darkness. This was some of the most beautiful sailing I have ever done. We came up on Dump Key and zoomed up to the cut. As soon as we neared the cut, the wind died and it got real quiet. I shone the light down into the deeper water as we glided silently through our momentum carrying us to the other side. We saw horseshoe crabs scuttling along the bottom and marveled at the crystal clear water. It only lasted for maybe 30 seconds but it was a very memorable part of the crossing because it was in such contrast to what was all around. A different world in the middle of the bay. As soon as we exited the cut, the wind hit us and blastoff, we were doing 8 knots again away from Dump Keys.

The wind was out of the NW about 10 gusting to 12 knots. We got on our new heading across more open water to End Key and I was sawing on the sheets to keep the boat in the groove trying to keep her up on plane in a deep reach but we were going kind of slow I thought. After a while I realized we must be dragging something as our speed was down to around 6 knots. I looked back and sure enough the rudder was covered in weeds. I bore off and popped the rudder up and back down clearing it's edge. What a difference, back up to 8 knots and popping up on a plane in the puffs. But soon after this speed boosting event you could almost hear Florida bay say, "not so fast guys", as the centerboard started dragging the mud followed quickly by the rudder. Dad raised the board and I popped the rudder line but while we frantically tried to figure out which way to turn the boat came to a stop, sails still full and beautiful. It happens just that fast. We were in about 6 inches of water and we figured out that we were north of the channel and I must have sailed too high and into the shallows. Downwind was more shallow mud and we had to sail south to get back in deeper water. We raised the board and rudder fully but the bottom of the boat was already dragging the bottom and we were just slowly being blown deeper into the mud exactly what we were trying to avoid.

Fortunately in this situation, the Core Sound 20's Cat Ketch rig comes to the rescue. The split rig allows you to apply turning moments to the boat that just aren't possible with a Bermudan main and jib setup. We let the mainsail fly and sheeted in the mizzen while moving our weight to the front of the boat to free the back end and she started to rotate counter clockwise to the north and eventually almost into the wind. Then we grabbed the end of the main sprit and pushed it far out to starboard causing the main to backwind blowing the bow off and the boat kept rotating. The bow crossed through the wind and we eased the main while she spun around and presto, we were pointed back toward the channel. After sheeting in both sails (boards still up) the boat started dragging bottom but in the right direction and gaining depth with every inch. About 5 minutes after we grounded we were back in the channel, rudder down and on our way. In no time we were looking for the markers to the entrance to Twisty Mile.

I spotted the markers with the spotlight and we started winding our way through the maze. Some markers just barely above the water and some I missed completely until it was too late. We bumped over some shallow spots but luckily didn't get stuck. It's quite a twisty path (go figure) through the deep channel and the spotlight is invaluable. I could pretty clearly see where the tops of the seagrass changed the look of the clear water indicating the edge of the channel and dad updated us aloud what was ahead on the gps, left turn, right turn, which helped us to think ahead of time what sail trim would be needed, or whether or not we might need more centerboard in anticipation of a short beat. We made it through back into the deep water and on course for Jimmy channel.

Jimmy Channel came and went without incident. We were making great time and I was beginning to look for the red flashing light of the radio tower which is just behind the finish line at the Bay Cove motel. Ahh the motel, I remember thinking how nice it will be at the finish line just relaxing and sailing around. What are we going to do with ourselves we thought out loud its only monday morning. We can sail around all week! The wind was beginning to shift more easterly now and we were sailing due east on a beam reach. We planned to go through the cut just west of Stake key. We took this cut in 2011 and since it is due east of Jimmy channel we chose it again. Dad navigated us to where the entrance markers should be. "left...more left", he said as I headed up and sheeted in beating now north east. I searched for the markers with the spotlight. "Got em", I said and I steered for the two markers marking the east and west side of the Stake Key cut. The wind was right out of the N now and a bit stronger. We were close hauled and realized that we might have to tack through the narrow cut with the wind on the nose. We entered the channel and held the tack as long as possible and I could see the two markers on the other side of the cut about 20 yards away. Once we got past those we were back in the clear.

We were on a port tack but we weren't heading high enough to make it through. I don't remember exactly the moments leading up to what happened next except that I must have called for more centerboard realizing that it wasn't down all the way. With the extra board we were just going to make it. I spotted the marker and we sailed as high as we could. I cranked in the mizzen to get the last bit of height out of the tack and dad leaned out on the rail. I watched the maker clear the starboard gunwale by about 2 feet. "We made it", I said and I started to bear away on the other side of the channel but suddenly the boat started slowing down.

It all happened in about 5 seconds. The boat slowed but in a weird way and my first reaction was, "get the board up were dragging!", but before we could do anything the boat wrenched hard to starboard and I saw what was happening but could do nothing. Our spinnaker halyard which draped lifeless on the back side of the mainsail had fouled on the indicator stick of the channel marker as we passed it heeled to starboard. The halyard started to pull the boat over as we decelerated from about 6 knots, the spinnaker was now half in the water yanked out from under the side deck. The sails were still fully pressed and the mast bent back sickeningly. I heard a loud but short and hollow metal-y sound and watched the main mast snap and hit the water. The boat was relieved of the pressure and continued to spin around a full 360. We came to a stop pointed into the wind stunned at what had just happened.

In that 5 seconds, dad had been trying to get the centerboard up and wasn't even sure what had happened. He was pretty tired at this point and this was like a shot of adrenaline to us both. It was still pitch black dark and we were about 6 miles from the finish line. The wind was a steady 15 now from the NNE. I didn't skip a beat though and clicked on my headlamp and headed for the bow. "We lost the mast", I said, "lets get this rigging cleaned up and save the mainsail". Dad started untying the spaghetti of halyards, backstays and sheets and I went to the bow to drop the anchor. I got the anchor on the bottom before I realized that we were already nicely tied up to the channel marker which was now bent over about 45 degrees in the mud. I started untying from the bow and pulling in the spinnaker from the water. The spinnaker didn't like being dragged over stuff and sufferd a few 12 inch tears. We got the spinnaker stowed and pulled the mainsail down the broken mast and I pushed it back into the cockpit. The mast was bend about 15 degrees midway up but the sail came down easily. We fought with it in the wind and got it rolled up. I hauled the mast up onto the boat and we laid it across the cabin top. We got it lashed down to the bow cleat and to the top of the cabin. In no time we had the boat all sorted out. We were kicking ourselves for losing the mast and at the same time we were sad to see it go. "It was a good mast," we said as we prepared to get back underway. It was a good mast too.

After we were totally ready, I pulled up the anchor and gave us a good push off of the busted channel marker. I had some experience sailing my CS 17 under mizzen alone and after a few failed attempts I got the boat moving on a reach and slowly sheeted in and heading up until we were close hauled. It took a good bit of force on the tiller to keep her from going head to wind. A few times I sheeted in too hard and the mizzen would overpower the rudder and put us in irons. We had to backup, sheet out and get going on a reach again, and slowly turn up with plenty of boat speed to avoid a repeat. We still had about 2 miles to sail directly into the wind before we could turn onto a reach on the other side of Bottle Key. We were surprised that we were actually able to make pretty good speed and our tacks weren't that much worse that with both sails! The boat had less power sure but also a lot less windage with no main mast so it must have balanced out. Beside being difficult to tack without going into irons it wasn't that bad.

The dim light of sunrise was just starting to lighten the sky and we could see the radio tower now about 5 miles off. "We should have taken a picture!." In the excitement of the situation we had neglected to get even one picture of the mast over the side with the sail in the water. Oh well. We were doing fine, making steady progress in the stiff wind and we knew we were almost there. We were also still in disbelief that we lost the mast. I guess we won't be sailing around at the finish line afterall.

We finally got around Bottle key and cut across to the ICW. We were almost there! We were able to make it most of the way up the ICW to Bakers Cut on one tack and got ready to tack over and sail through to Buttonwood sound. With dad on the oars helping to pull we just eeked through the channel makers of the cut (staying well clear) and into the sound. This was the home stretch. We could almost see the finish line and sunrise was well underway. It was about 30 minutes to 7 and while it was too soon to think about it back in Flamingo, we realized that we really could make it in under 2 days. We had started on Saturday at 7am. Dad just kept on rowing slow and steady adding about a knot to our speed. We weaved our way through the mooring field, damaged but unbroken toward the finish and I spotted the distinctive grass roof of the hut at the Bay Cove motel. We sailed up to the dock sheltered by the trees from the wind and tied off. The time was 7:02. Two days and two minutes. Oh well, we made it.

I spent the next couple of hours cleaning out the boat and setting stuff out to dry while dad looked for signs of life. He was dead tired and no one was at the motel not even the staff. After an hour someone finally came to let us into a room. When I finished with the boat I found dad asleep on the bed. So this is what it's like for Lumpy and Bumpy and SewSew we thought. Kind of lonely, but if you finish first, I guess you have to do it alone. As happy as we were with our finish and that we could relax for a while I was kind of jealous that our trip was over so quick and everyone else was still out there, "having fun". Maybe next year I'll go a little slower? Maybe...



Unknown said...

Thanks for taking the time to document your trip. I really enjoyed your story.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.