Having started the build of RoG in December, and having pushed through the build, I had little time to test the boat prior to the race. I did an overnighter around CP1 to recon Stump Pass, and then a week-end around Chokoloskee, to recon Indian Key Pass and Rabbit Key Pass. I was pleased with the results, found a few things with the boat, fixed them and hoped for the best.
Friday March 3rd
Friday March 3rd
Setup in the morning, all is well. My wife Shannan drops the boat, trailer and I at Fort Desoto where Ron Hoddinott, my shore-crew/driver/advisor will hook the trailer up and back the boat onto the beach. With the help of a few strong guys, it is simple work and we start rigging her up. There’s lots of interest in the boat and I chit-chat all day. I expect lots of friends; this is the home turf of the West Coast Trailer Sailing Squadron and they rounded up around me during the build, offering muscle power, expertise, equipment and advices. Most will visit today and I’m happy for it. This is a good day. There is talk that there might be a weather hold but it’s still just a buzz in the background; for the moment the vibe is that we’ll have a strong NE wind, promising a wild sleigh ride down to CP1. I’m most nervous about one thing in this whole race: Stump Pass. I reconned it a few weeks prior and it looks fairly benign, but it is 51nm from the starting line, so to reach it in daylight I have to keep 4.5kts average the whole day. Otherwise it’ll be a nighttime entrance, which I dread. To make matters worse, they are dredging Stump Pass 24/7 at the moment. I don’t like that too much, so I’m trying to gather intel from more experienced Watertribers. Jarhead (Bill Fite) tells me he’s going inside, Roo (Graham Byrnes) says he’s going outside.
We get a cold shower at the 3 o’clock meeting: Chief announces that if the Small Craft Advisory which is in effect at the moment remains so in the morning, he’ll weather-hold the start. The reason is that the Coast Guard doesn’t want to close the channel to Maritime traffic should they have to pluck someone from the water. Just as he’s saying that, the guy next to me pulls up the weather on his phone and on it is written “Small Craft Advisory in effect until Sunday morning 7am”. We all go about our business after the meeting, resuming preparation and meeting friends that came to check out the boat and say good luck. I am touched by how many of them show up, especially so by little good luck gifts like a bag of trail mix and some super cool soft shackles.
The plan is I’ll stay at my buddy Jon’s campsite for the night and will leave him my tent in the morning. Around 6pm, he peels me off from the boat and we head to the camp. Camp fire, hot dog and smores cap the night and I hit the sack early as the alarm is set to 5am. Throughout the night, the wind howls and I try to ignore the knots in my stomach as the tent is buffeted by the gusts.
Saturday March 4th
Saturday March 4th
The alarm rings and I gather my stuff, separating what I’m bringing with me from what I’m leaving with Jon. We show up at 5:30am on the beach and the prep is in full swing. Someone stops by to say the meeting is in 5 minutes; Chief will most likely hold the start but will talk about options. In the meeting, people are agitated but he gets right to it: Nobody launches from this beach today, period. Option 1: We stay on the beach and launch Sunday morning from here IF the Small Craft Advisory is lifted. If it is not, he’ll hold it still, possibly until Monday. Option2: Unrig the boats and drive them across the bay and launch Sunday 7am from anywhere, as far south as CP1. If the Small Craft Advisory is still in effect then, as it mostly will, this is clearly the best option. After the meeting, people gather in small groups to comment and make B-plans. I stick close to Jarhead, SOS and Roo to see what they’ll do and it seems like a lot of people will launch directly from CP1 in the morning. That could give us a sense of “start” and some competition, so I pack up the boat and Ron heads back home to get the trailer; but not before attending the WCTSS official post-start breakfast, which I obviously was not supposed to be a part of!
We drive down to Cape Haze Marina where there is already a festive feeling in the air, a bunch of tents on the grass. The marina offers to launch our boats for next to nothing. I’ll sleep moored next to Carlita, Southern Skimmer and few other boats. Simon drove his RV over so the crew heads out to dinner, with Meade Gougeon, Hugh Horton and cie. I am absolutely loving it and the race hasn’t even started.
Sunday March 5th
Sunday March 5th
In the morning Simon hands me back my fully-charged cell phone and pulls out the laptop for the latest weather forecast: It looks like it’ll be rough across Charlotte Harbor, with winds rising to 20kts by 10am with gusts to 30, against a flood tide. 7 o’clock arrives and I row out after having slipped into the dry-suit and PFD, Southern Skimmer is already out of sight and SkinnyGenes & SkinnyJeans in their Thistle are about a mile ahead. The first hour is calm and I have to row in the narrow channel, where the wind has a hard time deciding if and from where it’s going to hit. As we get closer to Boca Grande bridge, they are all waiting for an opening and the bridge tender confirms what he told me yesterday: 22-24ft clearance, plenty for me to go under (My main mast is 20ft from the waterline). He tells me he’ll open in a minute but I’m not going to waste this moment; I tell him I’m fine thank you, and scoot right under the bigger boat’s noses. Sweet! The bridge does open right after I pass and the EC22 is quick to slip through. She is about 100ft behind me, with the Thistle right on her tail. Those guys are not playing around.
As we head south, the wind starts to pick up as the bigger boats pass me and seem to head SSE, away from the channel. I don’t quite understand why and I don’t like it; All I can surmise is that they are heading away from the mouth of Charlotte Harbor. I don’t dare to follow them, knowing that they’ll eventually lose me and I’ll end up in the uncomfortable position of being on an unknown route, and not knowing why. So I head down the channel towards Boca Grande and Charlotte Harbor. As we approach Boca Grande, the Easterly whips up a nasty chop that has plenty of fetch. The waves are short and high and I receive bucket after bucket of saltwater , as the boat plunge from one crest to the next through. We are taking them on the port bow, about 45° so there’s no danger but I wouldn’t want to take one broadside so I keep my eyes peeled.
RoG doesn’t seem phased but I’m impressed. Still, I’m more or less in home waters so I know there’s a rough square mile, just south of the pass where the waves are especially short and high, and I’m going to have to bear away right in it to avoid the shoal abreast of Pelican Bay. This will put us on a broad reach in big waves. I am scared but exhilarated: It’s going to be a fast few minutes. Indeed it is, as we punch through the top speed of the boat repeatedly. 8kts… 8.5kts… 9kts… She planes down the waves like a surfboard and hits a respectable 9.5kts as I scream and laugh. The circus is over all too soon as we round the red marker and start beating again. Boom-boom-splash, boom-boom-splash! We settle for a long afternoon as we’ll beat all afternoon through Pine Island Sound. Sirtackalot and Kokopedal in their Seapearl are with us, and so is Finger Mullet and an IA. Spray is flying everywhere and I constantly have to dump the main even though I’m reefed all the way down. In my haste to leave in the morning I forgot to cover the companionway, so I shake my head when I think of the state I’ll find the cabin tonight. Still this is exhilarating as I’m staying abreast of multis and a SeaPearl, which should theoretically leave me biting the dust. RoG points extremely well and I’m a very very happy designer. Sometimes in the afternoon I spot a small scrap of sail to leeward and sure enough, it’s Elderly Care and Meade Gougeon in the distance. As we get closer and finally cross path, I whip out the camera thinking this is going to be priceless footage, but it is a bit of a juggle since I’m white-knuckling the helm in one hand and the mainsheet in the other. We give each other thumbs ups and I am 100% in admiration of this men in his late 70s, slugging it out with his ski goggles in conditions in which men half his age would prefer to stay home.
At the south end of the Sound, we all round southeast, straight into it and start beating hard, eventually scattering as we all tacked back and forth. At one point we pass a big Sportfish aground being pulled off a sandbar by SeaTow. Half-an-hour later, the freed boat is heading straight for me full speed. I’m thinking the guy probably suffered a huge ego-bruise and will angrily run me over, just like you kick the dog after stubbing your toe. Or course he doesn’t run me over any more than you kick your dog J
The fact of the matter is that I’m running into a problem: I’m getting cold and tired, it’s nearly 4pm and if I pass the Sanibel bridge, I’m in for 40nm without shelter until I reach Marco Island. No chance I’m doing this at night in these conditions, so I head toward Picnic Island, a little haven know to the Watertribers that Ron had pointed to me in our prep sessions. I wash up there around 4:30 right about the same time as Meade does, followed by Busted Rudder in a kayak (man this guy is tough!) and a few AI. I feel guilty to stop for the night so early but don’t really have the balls to keep going, and Meade reassures me that it’s the right thing to do. In his opinion, today is a success and I should call it instead of going out, doing something stupid and ruining it. In the meantime, he pulled the seat out of his boat, positioned it on the beach facing the sunset and is enjoying the view while munching some snacks. I’m easily convinced, proceed to pull out the beanbag and do the same. We’ll rest and see in the morning; In the meantime I’m happy and honored to share the anchorage with this grand old man. Later on, I empty about 20 gallons of water from the cabin, dry everything up, make dinner , go to bed and sleep like a baby.
Monday March 6th
Monday March 6th
I wake up at 5:45, make breakfast and get the boat ready. This time I make sure to put the hood on the companionway. As we prepare, a boat I don’t recognize pulls up into the cove and takes a few pictures of us. He runs aground, backs up and just hovers around. We even chat a bit before we heard out and then I realize it’s Floyd, who told me Friday he was taking a new boat south as we’d sail the course. What a goldfish I am this morning! Next time I see him I’ll have to apologize for my lapse in memory.
About a mile out from the island, still in the smooth water and breeze of dawn, I bump into something and the water around me immediately turns brown and frothy in an area of about 10ft by 10ft. I assume I woke up a manatee or two… but I don’t see anything. I would not have hurt it, but not the nicest wakeup call I admit. Meade heads for the big bridge, I head west for the small one, I’ll see him later, as we agreed to try a radio contact at 6pm.
I have to try a few times before succeeding in clearing the bridge. I can’t use the main span because it has wood fences over a distance of 100ft, very narrow and I’ll lose the wind, which is of course coming straight from where I want to go. The height marker says there’s 26ft of clearance so it couldn’t possibly be a problem for me to use the opening to port of the channel, but I’ve got my stomach in a knot as my imagination has my masthead hit the structure. Or course, once under I see that there’s enough clearance for a VW bus between my masthead and the bridge.
We then start tacking port and starboard around the shoals that surround the Sanibel Lighthouse and once we clear them, I set my course to 163° true, which is the Green Marker at the entrance of Caxambas pass. At first I can make it, though barely but as the wind and chop build, I have to bear away more and more, up to a point where I get a tad nervous because we are taking a mighty pounding and I can’t point anywhere near my mark, the boat keeps pounding itself to a standstill. I’m reefed all the way down and it’s still too much, having to constantly dump the main, so I tack towards shore but again, I have to bear way down, NE (the wrong way); I’m still pounding like crazy and the waves are threatening. This is quite discouraging, so I finally douse the main altogether and it is then that I discover another sweet trait of that boat: Under mizzen alone, she points well and doesn’t heel too much as I sit in the bottom of the cockpit for a little regroup/break. I still have to pinch a few times as she heels but nothing threatening. Tail between my legs, I head back towards smooth water and shore, seeing in the distance, going the opposite way (the right way) a few sails which I’m sure are EC boats.
Eventually tough, the shoreline and buildings grow, and I finally tack SE when I’m about 1mile from the beach. The sea is a lot flatter and I can follow the coast easily. Ahead of me is a Hobby IA that I slowly reel in, giving me something to focus on. The wind is still strong and gusting but I’m hiking out and we are moving fast. For the last few hours I’ve been seeing in the distance a cloud of smoke, which looks like it’s coming from a building on fire. As we are moving closer and closer, it becomes increasingly clear that the fire is not in the city but behind it, probably a forest fire, and it is huge. Sailing under the smoke cloud which is blown to sea feels like sailing under a bridge, albeit a very long one, with sunshine on both sides. An undesirable side effect is that I can’t get the weather forecast on the VHF. On the channel that normally broadcasts the weather, a fire hazard warning is played in a loop, so I don’t know what’s coming my way weathewise.
Towards sundown, we are side-by-side with the AI in a screeching regatta which has lasted 3 or 4 hours as he and a WETA head in at Big Marco Pass. My destination is Caxambas pass, a bit further south but if I make the pass before sunset, I’ll have to anchor along the channel, as the wind will not let me run the pass and I don’t want to short tack in the dark. So I make an executive decision: I’m a bit scared of sailing at night and this Everglades Challenge is about punching thorough my fears so tonight is the night. I set up the boat, shorten sail to mizzen alone, pull out the navlights, headlamps, spotlight, put on warm cloths and head out to round the Cape Romano shoals. I don’t have a detailed map of the area, but the GPS show a light at the 4 miles line that marks the end of the danger; I’ll round it and then tack east. As the sun is setting I see Marco Island behind me slowly putting her night gown. It is a beautiful night, the moon is out and the sky is full of stars. I’m sitting in the cockpit, steering with the continuous line and slowly get used to the sounds of the boat and the invisible waves. I steer my course by lining up a star with the mast. A few hours later I round the buoy, although I don’t see it and try to tack east but the sea is confused and the mizzen doesn’t have enough power to push us in the right direction. I tack back and forth a few times, steering for Chokoloskee but I can only make due north or SE. Neither is good so although I dread it, I raise the deeply reefed main and sit on the rail. The best we can do is NNE so I lay a course for Coon Key Light. I’ve been here just a few weeks ago and I know that even in total darkness, we’ll find shelter behind one of many mangrove island. We finally reach White Horse Key at about 3am and I’m not sad to drop the hook in 1ft of water, clean the boat, pull out of my wet gear and crawl in my sleeping bag.
Tuesday March 7th
Tuesday March 7th
My alarm goes off at 5:45 and I reluctantly relinquish the warmth of my bag but as soon as I look outside, the first thing I notice after the pristine beach by which we are anchored is a couple of boats bearing down on me. One seems to be an AI and the other some cat ketch, maybe a Sea Pearl. That spurs me into action: I snarf up my oatmeal, fill a cup of tea, gear up and raise anchor. The wind is East and is predicted to turn SE, which is of course the exact direction in which I’m going. For the moment I can make the green marker at the entrance of Indian Key Pass, 5 miles away. I hope I’ll make the mark before the wind shift, but it is not to be. About half-way there, the wind starts veering so I slowly bear away offshore. I’ve had my lesson though and I don’t venture very far before putting a tack towards flat water. The other intriguing thing is that the cat ketch behind me has a white hull and the only white hull cat ketch I can remember from the beach is the EC22. How could they possibly be behind me? They are an experienced double crew, bigger boat with tons of sail area, I’d expect them to be in Flamingo by now. A technical issue, I presume (I was correct; she broke her main mast on the first day). She’s closing up on me but I’m not going to crawl on my belly so I sheet everything in, check the trim of the sails and hike way out. We short tack Indian Key Pass with the tide as I try to shadow her every move. Man these guys are good, they make no mistakes! Nonetheless, I’m having a blast and we make landfall at Chokoloskee, Check Point 2, only 16 minutes after her. I’m beaming and so is Ron, who’s waiting on the beach. Hugh is there waiting for Meade, so is Graham who DNS because of back pain. There are a bunch of boats on trailers, people camping and sitting down everywhere, the vibe is festive, and for the first time I feel like I’ve accomplished part of something, that we are on a journey. The guys of the EC22 leave right away towards Rabbit Key Pass while I eat a bit, use the bathroom and sit on a beach for a few minutes.
Ron hints that I should get going not to miss the tide so I eventually get back onboard and head out but the tide is going out and I can’t make the tight turn SW of Chokoloskee island: The wind is coming off the island and the water is barely deep enough. I have to hug the shore, but as I do that, I get in the shadow of the buildings, run out of wind and blow back out. As soon as I veer off course by a few feet I rake the bottom. I raise the centerboard but then the boat refuses to point and anyway I’m in a wind hole. I scrape the bottom again, so I raise the centerboard some more but then I can’t even tack, I can only jibe. Cursing myself not to have left right away, I try one more time to no avail and finally give up and head back towards Indian Key Pass. This time we are making 6kts downwind (in the wrong direction of course…) wing on wing and we blow through Chokoloskee bay and out the pass, where we cross path with Meade beating in, who looks at me with a huge question mark across his face. As we round Kingston Key and head SE, the wind heads us again and we can’t lay our destination so we have to beat back and forth. Flamingo is 56nm south and it’s 2:30 in the afternoon so it’s not going to happen. Besides, I’ve had 2 hours of sleep last night so I’m eyeing the mangrove islands to Port for a spot to anchor for the night.
Looking at the map, I spot Pavillion Key, a group of 3 or 4 island that looks very inviting lying on my path. The name is vaguely familiar and I see a spot within the group that promises good protection from the E, SE and NE. My cruising explorer instinct kicks in and I head for the spot which I reach just before the sun sets. The main island has a large exposed beach with a kayaker’s tent on it. I don’t plan to go ashore; I’ll just tuck in and anchor in the mangroves. The first spot is promising but after a good look at the chart, the tide table and probing over the side with a stick, I decide to move away some lest I’ll be high and dry in the morning. The spot is not as protected from the wind as I hoped for but there’s no chop and I’m in for a gorgeous night once more. I’m starting to find my groove and reflect on how lucky I am to be on such an adventure. I cook myself a huge dinner and hit the sack early, not before noticing a boat 100ft north of me. A few hours later, I wake up and peer in the darkness to see if my neighbor is still there. I can’t see him but there is a few reflective lights one above the other, very UFO-like, right where he was. I pull out my powerful spotlight and aim it in this direction but it only shows the dew in the air, although as soon as I turn it off the reflective light reappear. After repeating the exercise a few times I still can’t determine what ‘s up but a spotlight blinks in my direction. Oops, I guess it was a boat after all… (Whoever you were, I apologize). Yet again, I sleep like a baby.
Wednesday, March 8th
Wednesday, March 8th
In the morning my neighbor is gone. I cook myself breakfast and stow my sleeping bag in its dry-bag, enjoying the peace and quiet of my surrounding. By now I’ve got a routine established: The wet gear is stowed on the mizzen and lashed, the sailing gloves tucked behind the halyard on the mast. The beanbag is to port, the crocs and sailing shoes in the cockpit. There is starting to be order in my little world and as my father would say, “the boat is getting bigger”. I gear up and prepare to set sail. It is 8am because I slept right through my alarm. We sail on south through the south channel past a couple of fisherman in a gorgeous Florida morning. We’ve got 7-8kts on a close reach but the sea is flat and we’re laying directly for the Flashing Red beacon off Northwest Cape. I’m sitting on the beanbag, feet in the air and life is good. I pull out the camera and record a few video logs, including one for my 2 boys, Benjamin and Joshua, whom I miss badly. My birthday was at the beginning of February and for a gift, I asked of each of them a small drawing, which I was to laminate and stow in my PFD pocket along my PLB, strobe and waterproof matches.
Sure enough, the wind picks up and heads us, but I don’t mind too much because the weather forecast calls for “Winds East, turning SSW 5-15kts, gusting to 20” so I’m heading south, positioning myself to take advantage of the wind shift. By the time 2pm arrives, I’m almost 15 miles offshore and no sign of my SSW wind. I tack towards shore and after toying with the GPS, I can see that I’m heading straight for Shark River Island, which Ron told me would be a good anchorage for the night. As we approach the coast I see many boats big and small headed in that general direction but the sun is behind us, the coast is gloriously lit, the weather is beautiful and I don’t want to go in, so I resolve to make Flamingo tonight. The wind is straight off the coast and Ron told me there are no breakers on it in an Easterly, I could basically just pull up close to the beach and anchor. That in itself is reassuring and I tack south towards the flashing red, not 5 miles distant. As I’m reaching towards the SE, for once the wind backs to the NE and I can actually point higher and higher. To Port, I can see inviting breaks in the mangroves, such as the one at Little Sable Creek, which in different circumstances I’d love to explore.
The boat gurgles along as I’m pulling out extra clothing, lights and snacks out of the cabin. The night is clear and warm as I steer by the stars. I can actually see the coast to port by the moonlight. There is no chop to speak of and we’re moving well. The GPS says we’ll be there by midnight. We leave Middle Cape astern and as we finally round East Cape, I’m in for a little surprise: I expected Florida bay to be dead flat but there is a nasty short chop that we’re pounding into. The channel from East Cape to Flaming is about 8 miles so we beat into it by instruments alone, and I’m getting confident. RoG doesn’t miss a tack, we even heave to for a little while. At one point, I realize it’s completely useless to see anything outside so my headlamp is on bright, and I’m steering with the Compass, GPS and chart, oblivious to anything outside the cockpit. The boat is completely in control and unusually for me, I’m not scared at all, barely nervous. We approach the final narrow channel and the wind peters out completely. Most beacons are not lit but they reflect the beam of my spotlight and I can find my way easily, so I row the remaining mile effortlessly and enjoy the last moments of a magical night. I round the corner into the marina and tie the boat to the dock, guided in by the crew of La Perla. It is 2:30am and I’m not tired. I dump my PFD, foul weather jacket, drysuit and undergarment off on the dock, and walk around shirtless, enjoying the warm night (I just rowed a mile, so that might have something to do with it), for which the mosquitoes thank me profusely. Ron shows up: They were in Key Largo, some 2 hours away and as he was watching my track he said to his buddy Richard “If he doesn’t put in at East Cape, we jump in the car and head to Flamingo” which they did around 9pm. They’d been snoozing in the truck waiting for me since. I prepare myself a huge dinner and chat with the guys from LaPerla, who had quite a day; they picked up a guy from the Mangroves without his boat earlier in the day. Eventually I hit the sack but not before setting 2 different alarms for 5am, so I can take off early.
Thursday, March 9th
Thursday, March 9th
When my alarm sounds, the guys from LaPerla are already up and chatting with SewSew (Randy Smyth) who obliterated the racecourse on his wing-mast trimaran. He actually sailed to Key Largo and then drove the car back up to Flamingo to encourage his girlfriend who’s taking a Weta to the finish line. They are talking about routes. Randy tells them something about the Murray-Clive channel, to the effect that it is passable. I immediately get into overdrive because I will not attempt the channel by myself (I’ve heard horror stories of people stuck in the mud for days on end) but if these guys know where they are going, I’m more than ready to shadow them. Unfortunately, they get a 20 minutes head start on me and by the time I’m out of the narrow channel, they already made the turn south and are about a mile away. Just a bit too much, dang! I’m going to take the long way around. Too bad. The good news is I’m actually doing 5kts downwind, and I’m on course, maybe for the first time in the race, so my spirit is up. Another first is that I did not wear the drysuit.
The weather is beautiful and warm and I don’t expect anything crazy, so stuff is drying all over the boat and the companionway is open, hoodless. The wind is straight out of the East and we’ll enjoy about 8 miles of this until sheeting in and turning south. Then, if it holds we’ll be on a reach all the way to the north channel. Well, it does not hold. Sometimes on our way down, the wind all but dies, to the point where I have to pull the oars out. Eventually it resumes but from the SE, which, you guessed it, is where we are going. So we resume our by-now-familiar tacking back and forth routine. A new variation on the theme this time: cross-current. We finally make it to the Key’s North Channel but it’s already 2:30pm and the wind backed to the East. Again on the nose, but we beat happily into it in crystal clear waters where we can see every bit of coral and seaweed on the bottom. Not a bad life. Coming up hot behind me is the Astus trimaran and again I get the bug, sheet everything in tight and hike back way out. We go at it for a few hours as he’s reeling me in and eventually passes me. It’ coming on 5pm and I’m feeling the lack of sleep as we beat through Bowlegy’s cut, almost making it on one tack but not quite. This cut is intimidating because of the dark sand banks awash on both sides. As the channel widens again and the chop reminds me of its fetch, my courage evaporates. From what I can see of the map (in the wind, it is unfolding like a flag in my one available hand) there is 20 more miles of exactly that type of sailing between me and the Finish. To starboard is Lignumvitae Key with a few vessels in her lee, one of which is a magnificent 35’ Bristol Channel Cutter. 2 options at this point: Option A, short tack until 2 in the morning, dead tired with my stomach in a knot, running a small but real risk of making a costly mistake. Option B, run and hide in the lee of that uninhabited key and spend the last night of my Everglades Challenge at anchor, nice and warm, reflecting on all that’s happened in these crazy last few months. Easy choice, I bear off to starboard and head for the anchorage.
Upon reaching the key, I anchor in about 6 feet of water, where I see the bottom clearly and take my time to stow the boat and the gear following my new routine. I’m in no hurry, it’s about 6:15, the sun will set soon and I have about 2 hours before my bedtime of 8 0’clock, so I start cooking dinner and then decide to make some interior footage, to show how the boat is setup at anchor; So I put my pants back on J and clean the boat up to make us both presentable. I also turn on my cell phone for the first time in the race and oh surprise! I have lots of signal. I skype with my boys while Shannan is performing bedtime routine. They didn’t expect to hear from me and Benjamin jumps up and down in the bath like a little frog. I text Ron and tell him of my intentions and he writes back “Not a lot of wind tomorrow, expect to row”. Sure, I’ll row. The sound of mosquitoes flying around my head is deafening, but none touch me, as I’m heavily perfumed with DEET.
Unless something really weird happened, I will complete my first Everglades Challenge tomorrow. I probably smile in my sleep, snug in my little wooden cocoon.
I wake up early, cook breakfast and prepare to raise anchor. I’m fully expecting to row all the way to the Pelican Cove, some 18 miles away. It’s 6am and I figure that at an average of 2kts, I’ll be there in 9 hours: 3pm. This is going to be a long day. The sails are still stowed as I row out from the lee of Lignumvitae Key, when I realize that there’s actually a decent north wind. I scramble to raise all canvas I can fit on her as we start moving at a very respectable 5kts. I can’t believe my luck. I keep telling myself that the wind will die down any minute but I see the miles tick by, and every one of them is a blessing because I’m spared from rowing it. I’m lucky enough to sail all the way to Cowpens cut on the same tack, where I’m going to have to short tack through. Fortunately the tide is with me because that cut is narrow, probably not 100ft wide. As I’m working my way upwind, I’m about half way when I spot at the north end of the cut a big cruising trawler engaging in the opposite direction. He’s going slow and doesn’t seem to know how to handle our encounter. Pretty simple really, I’m tacking from one mangrove bank to the other like clockwork (Did I mention I love my boat?) he doesn’t need a 100ton license to figure where I’ll be the next minute. He seems baffled and keeps heading right where I’m going, but I forge on, thinking the safest course of action is to be predictable; besides, I don’t really have a choice. Finally, he abruptly alters course to avoid me and as I grab my sail and shake it to state the obvious, he opens his window and yells “Thank you!” as if I lacked courtesy. I can’t believe it, had I been a gentleman, I’d have jibed back out of the cut so that he could leave his autopilot on… All I can muster for an answer is “Are you serious?” and carry on. Does he even know that I have priority?
After getting out of the cut I forge on, pretty happy with my boat’s performance but as I veer north towards Pigeon Key, the wind starts to peter out. By the time I’m around it and veer East again, the sea is dead flat. It’s about noon and I’m 5 miles from the finish. I rock out the oar and start pulling. What are you going to do about it? I ask no-one in particular daringly: Do you think a little rowing is going to prevent me from finishing? I’m going to make these 5 miles and succeed, wind or no wind. I’ll swim and tow the damn boat if I need to. My arms hurt a little, it’s really hot in the noon sun but what’s really excruciating is my backend. After 5 days of sitting on the rail of a bucking & rocking boat, it is, how shall I put it… sensitive.
The funny thing is I forgot to turn off my cell this morning and I still have excellent reception, so I can hear the skype messages pop! Pop! Pop! And I know exactly what it is: My designer buddies and I have had a skype group chat open for years, and I know they’d be following me closely. So while I won’t take the time to check the phone and verify, I can picture Miro, Grant & Jon saying: “What the hell is he doing? Why is he only doing 2kts? He’s probably in a cross current, blah blah, windytv says there should be 4kts of wind on his beam, blah blah…” So I laugh and actually consider popping in on them for a joke and asking for a little silence, since some of us are working here, but in the end I don’t, and I keep pulling. Sure enough the miles slowly tick by and I finally make it to where I can see the EC boats and the people on the beach at the Pelican Cove. As I get closer they are cheering and yelling encouragements. They probably do it for everyone (they do) but I still feel extra special and proud. I pull a few good strokes and the bow touches the beach. I made it; I completed my first Everglades Challenge. Ron hands me a beer, I’m smiling like an idiot, I feel like a million bucks and after a few handshakes, I let myself fall backwards in the water, partly to celebrate, partly because its really hot after that long pull, and partly in the hopes of washing some of the stink off me before I get anywhere near another person.
The place is very festive; We basically hijacked the whole resort, there’s EC people all over the place, boats left and right, kayaks, sailboats, home-made and production boats all mixed up. It’s a who’s who of small craft sailing: Designers old and young, Olympic and unknown sailors, multi-veterans of the EC that I’ve read about so much, a bunch of kids running around. This is great, and I would not want to be anywhere else right now. After answering lots of questions about RoG which is generating some attention, and insisting I’m neither tired, exhausted nor underfed, I head for our room and the shower.
The boat has performed flawlessly, and I’m still amazed that with such little shake-down she made it unscathed. Actually it’s not true: the next day we found that the bottom of the anchor locker had a crack in it. A battle scar, proof of the pounding we took days on end: The anchor being repeatedly slammed against the locker sole as we fell off wave after wave eventually cracked it. During the race, although I had a full complement of tools, all I used on her was a Phillips screwdriver. She was one of only 2 boats in Class4/Solo to complete the race, out of 9 entries. She proved herself in all sorts of conditions and took care of me by being predictable and safe, yet when I pushed her she sailed like a dinghy.
As for myself, I capped off a year in which I completed my yacht design course, built my final exam (RoG) and sailed her in the EC successfully. I did so slowly and steadily, did not take any unnecessary risk, yet pushed myself past my fear of sailing at night, made sure I slept, ate enough & had fun, and measured myself to competent sailors. It was a personal goal, and so is a personal success, yet I owe a lot of it to my wife Shannan, and to Ron and my friends of the WCTSS, who repeatedly went out of their way to help me beat the deadline and avoid pitfalls.
Happy sailing and thanks for reading!
JF Bedard, March 16th, 2017