Anarchist MisterMoon and Part 2 of the Everglades Challenge
I’d been watching the weather models every day for almost two weeks leading up to the start. As the date loomed closer, the various models converged on a pretty challenging outlook. On Saturday we saw winds from the south around 15 knots at the start that were forecasted to pick up during the day to 20 knots with gusts nearing 30. The real kicker was there was a front bearing down on us expected to arrive sometime early Sunday morning that would clock the winds around to the west and then northwest with 30 knot winds and gusts over 40. Everyone including me had this in the back of our minds as we started.
Because we want to go south, winds from that direction are a big challenge. Racers have two choices on the first leg of the Everglades Challenge. They can elect to take the narrow and more protected inside route down the Intracoastal Waterway or they can go outside into the Gulf of Mexico. The outlook for the Gulf wasn’t pleasant. Winds out there are usually a bit stronger than they are inland and the NWS was predicting seas of 7-11 feet. Those are big waves under any circumstances and it’s even worse when you have to beat into them all day. What’s worse is once you are out there; you are committed to stay out there until you can get to one of the inlets and passes sprinkled sparsely up and down the coast. Inlets offer refuge from the big scary ocean but there’s a catch. Depending on the direction of the wind and waves and tides, the waters around and through an inlet can be even more violent than five miles out to sea as the large ocean waves pile up on the shallow sandbar s around the mouth of the inlet creating large Hawaii Five-O-style breakers. Many of these inlets and passes are not maintained or dredged and lack navigational aids to help guide you inside. Navigating one of these inlets in the daytime can be bad enough. It’s much more dangerous at night when it’s hard to see where you are going and where is the safe route that won’t put you in the breakers or hard aground. With that big front bearing down on us, I was even more acutely aware of the danger of going outside, so my mind was made up before the start to take the ICW.
Going the inside route isn’t without its challenges either. The first challenge is getting across about six miles of Tampa Bay to Anna Maria Sound. Tampa Bay can be a rough piece of water and you’ve also got large ship traffic to play with. Once you get to the more protected waters of the ICW there are other ‘issues’ to face. Much of the route can be quite narrow which means lots of short tacking into the headwinds we saw on Saturday. The next is the current. Tides in this part of the world are not very large, with less than two feet difference between high and low and only one cycle per day. However, the locals explained when strong winds are blowing, they overpower the effect of the moon and the currents instead flow in the direction of the wind — the stronger the wind, the stronger the current. Not only were we fighting the wind, we also had the currents against us making what was hard that much more difficult.
The final challenges are the bridges. There are 13 bridge s between the start and the final fixed bridge before CP1 at Placida. They range in height from 9 feet to 65 feet and most are around 22-25 feet. All the bridges on the ICW open to allow boat traffic, but not always when you want them. Boats signal the bridge tenders either by hailing them on the VHF or by using horn signals. I was lucky in that my Core Sound needs only about 21’ of clearance which meant that in theory I’d only need to wait for 4 or 5 out of the 13 to open. (The second bridge at Cortez was marked at 22’, so whether not I could go through depended upon the tidal state.) This was much better than my old Daysailer that needed 26 feet and would have required 10 of 13 to open for me to pass. Whether or not we could actually sail under these bridges into the strong south winds was a big concern at the start. Equally concerning was whether or not we could slow down or stop to wait for a bridge to open when the strong north winds came with the frontal passage on Sunday. Getting swept under a low bridge would be very unp!leasant and almost certainly end your race because of damage to your rig and or being capsized. Even with all the difficulties of making an upwind passage of the ICW, I felt it was far less perilous than chancing it out in the Gulf.
My launch this year was much less traumatic than my 2011 EC attempt. A kind fellow UM competitor Lightnin’ (Phil Garland) loaned me his large inflatable beach rollers. I got the boat in the water without too much difficulty, but I had some trouble when the wind blew my boat parallel to the beach and into the bows of the catamaran parked next to me. The leader and founder of Watertribe, Chief, saw this and bent the rules a bit and he helped me get straightened out so I could get going. The first obstacle was rowing out past a little sandbar about 20-30 yards off the beach so I could lower the centerboard and rudder and start sailing. Once this was accomplished I took off beating across Tampa Bay. The winds were still pretty manageable at around 15 knots and the waves weren’t too big at 1-2 feet. Based on the forecast, I departed with two reefs tied into both main and mizzen. This left me wishing for a little more power to get through the chop. But facing a long beat to the ICW and a forecast of stronger winds later in the afternoon, I resisted the temptation to shake out a reef. This proved later to have been the correct decision. One nice thing about the sprit boomed leg o’mutton rig on Bandaloop is it’s easy to adjust the power of the sails by easing or tightening a bit of rigging wonderfully named the ‘snotter’. I eased the snotters a bit which gave the sails a bit more draft and more power to bash through the waves.
About halfway across the bay, the winds had increased to the predicted 20 knots and seas were ranging into 2-3 foot range. With something like 80 boats on the beach at the start, there were Watertribers everywhere you looked. The sailboats, with their tall masts, were easy to see from a distance. But the kayakers were another matter; they would appear seemingly out of nowhere in the waves and just as quickly disappear again. About two and a half miles from my first waypoint at the entrance of Anna Maria sound and the ICW, I was surprised to find an overturned tandem kayak with two swimmers clinging to the side. I immediately hove to and told them I was there to help them if they needed it (but to be honest I’m not sure what I could have done) and that I would stand by until they got going again. Staying on station with them was hard to do in the increasingly gusty wind and large waves. I watched as they were able to right the boat, pump it out, get in and start paddling again. It was quite a display of skill and keeping cool in what was a pretty hairy situation from my point of view. (I later learned these two competitors turned around right there, headed back to Ft. Desoto and later withdrew).
Once we got into Anna Maria Sound, the water got a progressively smoother and it was easier sailing despite the increasing wind velocity. Here we hit our first big obstacle of the day, the Anna Maria Bridge. In theory, I should be able to sail right under it. But there was a solid 20 knots blowing under it made even faster by the venturi effect of the bridge structure PLUS a strong 1-2 knot foul current to make it even harder. A number of the faster boats were already here and everyone was trying their hardest to figure out a way to sail under the bridge. Ridgerunner (Doug Cameron) and Greybeard (Michael Collins) in their Core Sound 20 had beat me here by at least a half hour. They tried sailing and rowing with the sails up and could not manage to get under the highest center span. The wind and current was just too strong. I made a couple of attempts and failed. I decided the windage of the sail was too great to allow me to row under with sails up, so I dropped sails and tried to row. This was of no use, the windage of the masts and the strong current was simply too much for me to make any forward progress. I went over to the west side of the bridge and beached for a bit so I could get some rest and have a drink. About this time I could see my friend Gary Blankenship (Lugnut) and John Wright (Karank) on the opposite side pulling down their mast in preparation to wade their boat Oaracle through the shallows at the end of the bridge.
I quickly sailed over and prepared to do the same. By now, there was quite a crowd assembled here including Yellowthing (Meade Gougeon) in his stunningly beautiful sailing canoe, Dragonslayer (Ed Gossett) in his Core Sound 17, and Macatawa and Northern Light (Ben and Emily Algera) in their little sailing canoe/trimaran. We plucked out our rigs and pulled them under the bridge. Getting going on the opposite side was difficult owing to the strong winds trying to blow us back on short. Dragonslayer was a real blessing here as he held my boat pointed more or less in the right! direc n as I got situated and ready to sail off. This wasn’t the first act of kindness I’d received that day and it would not be the last. Watertribers are good people and my experience on this event really reinforced that idea.
The whole episode with the Anna Maria Bridge cost us over an hour. Had I just pulled the rig to begin with, I could have been away from there in only 15-20 minutes. I arrived at the next bridge, Cortez, a few miles further down the ICW in company with Lugnut, Ridgerunner and Greybeard, Macatawa, and Dragonslayer. This time there was no hesitation to beach below the bridge, pluck out the masts, row under the bridge to the marina on the south side, tie up to a piling there (apparently to the dissatisfaction of the marina manager as I heard from later people who followed our example), put up masts and sails again and sail away. Below Cortez, the ICW narrows and it took many tacks to make our way until it widens out into Sarasota Bay. By now it was nearing sunset and the winds in the narrows were much lighter than out in the more open bays and sounds. I seriously considered heaving-to in order to shake out one reef at this point, but my desire to stay close with Gary’s and Doug’s boats kept me sailing on. It wasn’t 90 minutes before I was again glad I’d left the double reefs in.
Once I made it into Sarasota Bay proper around 730 pm, the winds were again strong and the bay had a nasty, short 2-foot chop. The passage across Sarasota Bay was hard. What would happen is I’d sail through some fairly flat water until about 4 or 6 of these really big waves would come through at odd intervals and practically stop my forward motion and then the whole cycle would begin again. Doug’s bigger CS20 was faster than me and I soon lost sight of him in the distance. Gary and I stayed pretty close at the beginning, but they disappeared behind me before we hit the big 65’ tall Gil Waters Bridge at Sarasota. By now it was nearing 10 pm, and I was cold and hungry from being continuously drenched beating across the bay. After a bit of confusion where I lost the channel, I soon found myself at the Siesta Key Bridge. Judging from the wind and the current I didn’t think I could sail under it. I saw Ridgerunner Doug’s boat tie! d up o concrete bulkhead on the NW side of the bridge and I sailed over and tied up. Gary and John sailed up a little while later and somehow managed to sail and row under, but I have to admit it looked a little hairy.
Doug and Michael told me they were going to wait until the predicted westward wind shift before sailing under the bridge and then they’d tie up on the SW side (which would then be protected from the wind) and await the passage of the front. This seemed like a good idea to me, so I decided to follow suit. I got on some warmer and dryer clothes, got in my bivvy sack, grabbed something to eat and lay down waited for the wind to change. I managed to get in a few hours of sleep in between intermittent light showers when I heard Doug and Michael stirring about 5 am. The wind was still strong from the south. There was some thunder off in the distance and a check of the satellite on my smartphone showed the front was getting close.
While we were scouting the SW side of the bridge, the front came in all at once. The wind never really got any west in it all and went straight to coming from the north. Our little bulkhead was now directly downwind of all of Sarasota Bay and it was starting to get nasty in the 20-30 knot gusts. By some miracle and no small amount skilled seamanship, Doug and Michael were able to sail off the bulkhead and get under the bridge. I was stuck with no hope of getting away on my one. I was facing the very real prospect of my boat bashing itself to bits on that concrete wall when the waves finally caught up to the wind strength. I was sitting in my boat holding it off the wall and getting ready to resign myself to a boat less fate when came up Michael suggested they would help me pull my masts and set them on the shore and they would help me line my boat under the bridge. I quickly yanked out all the rigging that tied the masts to the Bandaloop and rigged long bow and stern lines. Doug and Michael came back aided me in plucking out the masts and with me in the boat holding it off the wall, they lined me around to what was now the downwind side where I tied up safe and sound and very thankful that I’d been sent two graybearded angels to deliver me from disaster. Part 3 this weekend.