Saturday, May 30, 2009
The Ten Happiest Days of My Life (Completed)
I want to finally tell the story of my sailing adventures of last year, which really was just one adventure of 10 days in October. I was gone from Orlando for 8 months, but it all boiled-down to those 10 days.
Photos from Late October 2008, on the day "I almost died," so to speak:
First Photo: Just after dawn, I was on my way from Saint Petersburg to Venice, FL. Weather cloudy, a bit breezy, but excellent and warm otherwise. Forecast: 15 knot winds from the east, gusting higher, maybe a rain shower, good for a fast run southward of 40 miles:
(CLICK PHOTOS TO ENLARGE)
Second Photo: Entering the large mouth of Tampa Bay, looking to port, back at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Wind is rising as I clear the wind-break of Interstate 275:
Last Photo: Right in the middle of the mouth and the big ship channel. VERY ROUGH. (Photos never tell the real story.) Seas and wind building. I was assuming that the steep waves were caused by the incoming tide, and were to end once I cleared the mouth. I was wrong. A minute later, the dinghy handle broke, and AWAY went the dinghy. There was no retrieving it. It was "gone with the wind." It was about that time that I said, "What the hell is going on here?!" ...Wind on the stern quarter, later rising to 25 knots steady, with gusts to 40 knots. (And later in the day they completely closed the bridge, I learned.) :
Now that I'm back in Orlando, and a few months removed from my adventures, I have a better perspective on things, I think. I was happier than ever last October when I "cast-off the dock lines" and headed to sea in my sailboat, I do indeed believe. I said that at the time, too, and have always felt that way since. Unfortunately, I was out of money, and having multiple equipment failures, and torn by my desire to improve my artistic skills (rather than sail around and travel and whatnot, so to speak).
And so in recent days I warmly think of "The Ten Happiest Days of My Life," and feel like finally sharing that experience, for what it's worth.
PART ONE: A TENTATIVE BEGINNING
It was mid-October of last year, 2008, and I had $300 and I decided on a plan. I would sail down to Fort Myers Beach and draw portraits and caricatures for people at a big-time tourist square called "Time Square," next to the beach. And if that wasn't profitable enough, I'd sail to Key West or someplace in The Keys and do the same. Along the way I might pick-up a mural job or whatever, and the occasional commission for a fellow sea-gypsy. I had procrastinated enough, and had to go. Winter was coming, things were breaking, and I had no prospects in Apollo Beach, except for a couple of good friends. My mind was in the Keys.
You must understand. I had done little sailing at this point. I'd had a canoe and then a dinghy which I had sailed some, and I'd read every sailing book ever written (some two or three times, like Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World; or Bernard Moitessier's The Long Way), and I'd done some sailing with friends on large sailboats, but never alone in my own liveaboard vessel. This was a big deal. I'd be learning to handle the boat as I learned to handle this new reality which I had dreamed of so much. I was utterly a hopeless romantic.
So I stocked my boat well, and got help with a little back-up motor (the bigger one had died, apparently) and putt-putt-putt, away I went one Friday afternoon. The little 2 horse-power outboard barely pushed my heavy full-keeled 24' sailboat, but it got me the one mile down the canal to the little bay beside the big bay, aka Tampa Bay. I anchored by-myself for the first time, just before sunset. "Woot woot!" I shouted. The anchor dug-in nicely, it seemed. I had been warned that the holding at that spot was really poor, but it seemed fine for me at the time. I only had a 12-lb. danforth, and a hundred feet of anchor line/rode (including 9 feet of chain), but it seemed OK.
I REALLY needed a bigger anchor and longer line, but I couldn't afford it. I also needed a VHF radio, because my old one had died. And I needed a bigger motor (and one which would START reliably). And I needed a storm jib for heavy weather sailing, and a way to reef my mainsail, but I didn't have those things, either. And on and on...
I figured I would take it easy, staying at anchor here and there in bad weather, and only sailing in settled weather. It was hurricane season, still, but nothing on the radar at the time. I felt good. I was free. It really felt like I was free.
I awoke, childishly excited. I had slept soundly. The boat rocked easily all night at anchor. A couple of dolphins had cruised-by after dark as I sat in the cockpit in near tears at the beauty of a night alone on the water. ...I cleaned the boat all day. I took care of a million little things on the boat. But the motor wouldn't start. Oh, well, I thought. I'll just have to be a motor-less sailor. That's the old-fashioned way, after all, the way "real" sailors do it. Right? I'm safely at anchor. What could go wrong? Tomorrow I'll do some sailing, some testing of the rigging, and maybe even anchor-out by Beercan Island out on the Bay, and be done with Apollo Beach. Ah...
PART TWO: Finally Sailing:
So there I was, that Saturday in late October, 2008 (last year) my old Islander 24 sailboat swaying, bobbing in the breeze, safely at anchor....
My plans had been morphing all summer. Unsure of everything, trying to do pastel portraits, and having a LOT less money than I had anticipated, and simple, powerful uncertainty filling my days with dread and cluttering my nights with dream... I finally had to GO, even though me and my boat were not ready. I borrowed some money, got the bare essentials, and, with LOTS of help from my friends Radar, Richard, and Thurline, I cast-off the dock lines.
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
-- Mark Twain
...My anchor seemed to have dug-in well. I had anchored before, with others, and had practiced with my old dinghy, but never alone on a cruising sailboat. I had lots of "reading knowledge" on sailing, but little experience alone, as I've said. So it was all new. Everything was new. I was giddy and frightened and blessed, it seemed. That's how it felt. I wasn't ready, but I would learn-as-I-go. No other choice at that point.
I had taught myself to navigate, and had, in fact greatly enjoyed looking at the charts and figuring-out where I might go. It's a satisfying intellectual challenge to comprehend your more-or-less exact location at all times on a mostly unmarked large body of water.
But first things first. That Saturday, there were lots of fishermen and powerboats/pleasure boats out and about. They seemed to enjoy flying-by my anchored sailboat and throwing up a big wake. My 3000-pound Islander 24 would sometimes be violently thrown from one side to the next with no warning. (This, I learned, was on the weekends in good weather; other days, this little Apollo Beach bay was peaceful.)
I knew a "cold front" was going to be heading-in that evening, so I wanted to stay-put until it passed. The winds shifted more and more toward the west (from the south" during the day, and kept picking-up. The anchor held fine, even though I was often worried by the powerboat folks who zipped directly over my anchor line at times. If one caught it in its propeller, we'd both have a big problem.
I had one hundred and ten dollars (down from $300, for provisioning), and a bunch of food, several gallons of water in jerry cans, a case of Tecate beer, and a bottle of rum. I had my charts and knew how to read 'em. I had a sailboat and all my possessions on Earth inside. I wished I knew how to fish. The daytime began its end, and a breezy evening descended beautifully. I waited for the cold front.
More dolphins, zipping around here and there in the darkening evening. Wonderful.
With night, the view changes. The Cosmos transforms itself miraculously, and reveals itself newly. Stars and planets started to blink down at me. I saw clouds toward the northwest. The cold front was approaching.
The "basin" where I was anchored is a body of water about 1/2 mile long and 1/4 mile wide, or maybe double those numbers. There's lots of room. It's an offshoot of Tampa Bay, and, in fact, I had a clear view of Tampa Bay from my position. The whole area around this anchorage is a mess of nice homes and yachts. I mean, EVERY square inch of land was covered with Man, and a wealthy man at that. And next to all the homes? Nice boats. Big boats. Boats that say, "If you so much as scratch me, you're dead, you piece of sh*t!" ... The wind increased from the west.
Night fell fully into darkness.
My new weather radio implied that I'd get hit by the cold front around midnight. Putting everything below that wasn't needed above deck, I kept a wary eye on those approaching clouds in the northwest's night sky. Here they come.
When it hit, it was a shock. But it was refreshing. I laughed, I threw up my arms, and the wind rushed through me and through the boat's wire rigging, singing that old sailor's song, wwhhhhirrrrrllllllllllllllll......!!!! The anchor held fine. I noted my position in relation to two points on land. I wasn't dragging anchor.
I was tired. Everything's fine, I thought. Tomorrow is to be clear and still mild, temperature-wise. If the wind is not too strong in the afternoon, I'll go out onto Tampa Bay and do a "shake-down" cruise on my Islander, finally, after having it for a year. About time! Too many things had been distracting me, causing carelessness, fear, whatever... I'm finally here! A cruising sailor. ...Or so I thought.
After an hour, I went to bed. It was about 1 AM.
I slept right-off.
Twenty minutes later I awoke, dead afraid. The motion of the boat had changed.
I rushed out on deck in my shorts. The wind had increased, but wait, the boat is at the wrong angle. "Man, the wind has really increased!" It was howling. I looked around. I could hardly see because this front had turned into a near gale.
Spray was stinging my now-cold skin. What's wrong? Something's wrong. Wait! Those lights behind me. They are WAY too close! I'm dragging anchor! OH MY GOD!
I grabbed a jacket, zipped it up, and dived toward the little outboard in the rear motor well. The big outboard lay on its side, dead, but I knew that. The little outboard was in the well, ready to go. I pulled the cord 3 times gently, then gave it a hard pull. Absolutely nothing. I double-checked the fuel cut-off. It was ON the right position, so I had gas. I choked, I primed, I cursed. Nothing, nothing, nothing. I pulled and pulled and pulled. Absolutely nothing. This all took about 60 seconds. The whole time, the gale is screaming through my rigging, and saltwater spray is drenching me. It's not raining, but I'm getting drenched. The weather radio had said 25 knot gusts were expected. I suspected this was much more than that. But I didn't really know, or care. All I cared about was the fact that I was being blown QUICKLY toward an unknown shore and a couple of million dollar yachts parked next to million dollar houses. Crash! Boom! I could see it now. "No insurance, buddy? You're going to jail. And, oh yeah, we're taking your boat!"
This can't be. What to do? Only one thing: I must SAIL this damn boat. One problem: I've never sailed this boat. Now, I sailed the heck out of my old dinghy, and an old canoe, but never a cruising boat, or, actually not ALONE. Plenty of miles with others, but this is different. Go go go go!!!
I had the jib already ready to be hoisted, for just such an emergency. I rushed forward and untied it, and then I rushed back to the cockpit in the shaking/bouncing boat. ...But this is too much, too much too soon.
Grabbing the halyard in the soaring wind and spray, I untied it and pulled. "Oh no! Another tie-down is keeping the sail from raising!" I SPRINT forward again, barefoot, everything wet, untie it, and collapse back toward the cockpit. Pull pull pull! That shore is getting closer! I'm about to hit that dock! Oh my god!
UP goes the big jib, and BOOM!!! it catches the wind and the boat heels WAY over, and then, incredibly, I'm moving FORWARD, away from the shore and the dock and the ominous yachts and darkened houses.
But the jib isn't all the way up! It's jammed!
I lash the wheel, and go forward again, and do a little untangling, but now, *WHAT'S WRONG?!* I've stopped, and we're TURNING..!! What the--?? "Oh crap. I still have that anchor up there, and it's PULLING ME BACK!"
Crap! I run back to the cockpit and untie the wheel. BOOM!! The jib catches the wind from the other side, and OVER the boat rolls, and now we're sailing TOWARD the shore. And FAST!!! I start to whip the wheel back the other way, but I hesitate. Wait, I think. Wait until I get close to that dock again, and THEN turn back. And it worked! I waited as long as I dared, and then TURN! And I made an effective tack right back the other direction.
This is crazy! I'm sailing, but I'm attached to this anchor, which is about one hundred feet ahead of me, and won't let me go! Of course, I don't know what will happen if I were actually ABLE to retrieve that anchor and start sailing FREE. The anchor is partially holding again, and COMBINED with the thrust provided by my jib, I'm staying away from the shore! This is crazy! The thing about a jib (and I did NOT have any experience with a front sail, like this jib) is that, theoretically, I knew, the "center of effort" of a jib is FORWARD of the "center of lateral resistance," so that means it won't go toward the wind as well. Right? I don't know, I thought... So, anyway, I figured, I needed to get the mainsail up. But, hell, NOT IN THIS GALE! I have no reef points in it (another delayed modification). I can't this whole big sail up! No way.
But wait, here I go again, I must tack back the other way. And I do. I'm headed toward shore again.
But, HEY, this is cool. I'll just keep doing this for the time being, tacking back and forth, being helped by that anchor out in front of me. I'll wait until the wind dies down a bit in a couple of hours, and then take down the jib and see if the anchor will hold again. But what if it doesn't? I'm WAY too close to that dock, and if I sail off that other way, into the DARKNESS, beyond which lays all of nasty black Tampa Bay, I might REALLY be in trouble. There's a shoal over that way too, somewhere. ...No, just keep doing this, and try to THINK. ...
And somewhere in all that panic I managed to change my portable anchor light to a portable red/green light, using lots of duct tape. And I managed to get a cap, and gloves, and a 2-liter soda. And, you know, it's funny. When the whole episode started, when I was first awakened by the motion of the boat changing, I felt VERY sleepy. And I couldn't shake that feeling of needing to SLEEP. It felt horrible, having to rush around in a panic and get my vessel out of harm's way, but at the same time having this physiological craving to drop asleep right there. That lasted for about an hour, and then I was finally awake. It's almost like I was in a nightmare, a bad dream. I kept thinking, I know I'm not dreaming all this, but man it sure seems like a dream. But it wasn't.
So I kept tacking back and forth. The wind decreased SOME, but not enough.
I didn't know what to do. If I pulled the anchor in, I'd be free, but the jib was still jammed a bit, and didn't have the right shape, and I doubted it would really sail properly without the mainsail.
So I thought, "Hey, I'm safe. And I can keep doing this ALL NIGHT if I need too. I've saved the boat."
So I kept doing this, tacking back and forth, ALL FREAKING NIGHT. (Maybe four hours, actually.) Absolutely bizarre, but I had discovered a way to methodically do something which awkwardly turned the little nightmare into mere annoying routine for a time. Fine. Ha! It was logical in a funny Spock type of way.
At first light, I was numb. And COLD. The wind had decreased, and I suddenly felt safe with the rising of the sun. Wow, it felt so warm and reassuring.
I untied the halyard, and down came the jib. I waited. The boat straightened. The anchor held.
I lashed the jib, then went below to my soft dry bed. I slept well.
"Sunday" is the right word. Sun+Day. A beautiful day. The air warmed noticeably by Noon. The wind was still a bit high, but much less than the near-gale the night before. The radio said a couple of boats were missing overnight in Tampa Bay waters. Lucky thing I was anchored safely, I giggled.
I called my friends and left a couple of messages. My phone's battery was suddenly low, I noticed. Dang. One of my friends, Captain Richard (from whom I had originally bought my Islander) was leaving that day or the next with a paying customer for a week-long cruise, so I hoped he could stop by and give me some advice.
Really, what I wanted, was to be towed away from the shore. Where I was, I was only about TWENTY FEET away from shore when the boat swayed at anchor in that direction. With no experience with this boat, I wanted to get away from shore a bit before hoisting my main and taking-off.
Now this is where my memory fails me. The next several days are spread out before me in my mind, but I'm not sure which day of the week each is. So I'll dispense with naming the days from now on. At sea, it doesn't make much difference, I figure. You need to know WHERE you're at, and you need to know the relative time between yourself and other points at sea and other weather patterns, but the names of the days which are used by people on land are, well, somewhat unnecessary.
Either that day or the next, Captain Richard and Thurline (and their paying crew) came by in their big sailboat. Absolutely wonderful people. He seemed to be enjoying my predicament, but he said OK, he'd happily tow me to more open water. But first I had to pull-up the anchor. Easier said than done, I learned. The thing was STUCK. I mean, that anchor was deep deep deep in the seabed. I tried and tried and tried, but it wasn't coming out. So Captain Richard said, "Well, son, looks like you're good and safe, and we gotta go. See you 'out there.'" ...And they were gone.
And he was right, I was safe.
I evaluated things... I had plenty of food and water (and rum). My anchor was NOT going to come out no matter how strong the wind. I'm safe.
But I want to SAIL. I want to GO. I need to get down to Fort Myers Beach and set-up my art stand and make some money. ...I rested that day, and saw three dolphins playing around my boat for TWO HOURS. Two of the three were often colliding. Was that romance? They would be swimming by my boat, and one would "jump" on the other one, in a way. It was lively action. A smaller dolphin followed the first two constantly.
Some girls in bikinis were in a boat near me for much of the afternoon. They were trying to water-ski. There was a lot of plopping about and falling, and shrieking. Then they stopped their futile effort, and just watched my dolphins play for another hour or so. ...I got myself together. I raised the mainsail in the lighter breeze, just to make sure it was OK. Part of the story I left-out was this: the storm I went through nearly destroyed my jib sail in the night. The whole length of the leach (the rear side) was torn apart by apparently whipping across the rigging all night. That's how strong the wind was, and that's how poorly-shaped the jib was. (It wasn't raised high enough, basically; my fault.) So I got my Gorilla Tape (really strong black duct tape) and spent a couple of hours doing an untidy repair job. (Later it proved to be quite good, however.)
The next day (Monday? Tuesday?) I slept late, then I got up, ate some noodles, raised the mainsail and started pulling in the anchor. Or, actually, I was pulling MY ENTIRE SAILBOAT toward the anchor, again. Once I got directly over the anchor (in about ten feet of water) I tied-off the anchor line, tight. And I waited. Occasionally I'd go back and pull on the line, and tie it again, each time a little closer. The waves rocked my bow up and down, and, slowly but surely, the anchor loosened. My theory was right! Soon it broke free, and I pulled it up QUICKLY (along with about fifty pounds of seabed!) and placed it in its holder and ran back to the cockpit. I untied the wheel, pushed the boom over, which allowed the mainsail to catch a bit of the wind, and this started turning the boat (in the right direction, away from shore) and then, BOOM, I've got the wind! Wow! I was moving nicely toward more open water in that little bay. But here was the big test, the first turn. And it worked. I tacked upwind with an ungainly but workable timing. I was easily gaining ground upwind.
I tacked several times across that little bay, in nice breezes, and made my way from one end to another. This was, actually, little different from sailing my old one-sail dinghy.
I threw out the anchor again, let it pay out, and tied if off, letting down the mainsail in the process.
Ah-HA! It all works! Sweet!
Nice test, but what to do now? I thought for approximately five seconds, and decided, "I'm outta here!"
I pulled in the anchor (easily) and sailed out of the bay, spirited, beating out the little channel, and all of Tampa Bay opened before me. Alas!
Freedom, indeed. Beautiful. I could see downtown Saint Petersburg 10 miles across the bay to the west, and there was downtown Tampa to my north, about the same distance I think. To the southwest, hazy, I could make-out the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, about 15 miles away to port. But my destination? I thought I'd head up to a little Island just to my north, Beer Can Island (unofficially, I think), so I started that way.
Hmm, I thought...I sure would like to get out of here, and get across the bay... Hmm...
So I got my charts and my binoculars and my compass, and I tacked. I was headed due west.
According to my chart, at this heading, I'll pass by Ship channel marker 6F (I think that was it) in about 5 miles, which will likely take one hour and twenty minutes or so. And, in about one hour and fifteen minutes I notice a big buoy DIRECTLY on my nose. "No way," I think. But, sure enough, it was 6F. Wow, I'm good.
My plan was to get across the bay to the channel which runs north and south parallel to the Saint Petersburg coastline, follow it south to another marked channel which leads due west and crosses under I-275 just north of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Then, immediately to the north, there's a nice area to anchor next to Indian Key. At that point, I'm adjacent to Fort Desoto and all of the Gulf of Mexico. This should take about 5 hours. (And after the ship channel, I would head southwest, and catch that Saint Petersburg channel further south, cutting away unnecessary distance.
But right now I had to cross the notorious Tampa Bay ship channel. It's only a couple of hundred yards across, but, dang, those ships are FAST. I look both ways, and GO. Nothing in sight. Earlier in the year, with a friend in another boat, I had a VERY close encounter. We weren't looking at a chart, and made a mistake. So now I was paranoid.
Of course, even when you do everything right, things can go wrong. Or ONE thing can go wrong. That thing: the wind died to almost nothing.
Wow... "I'm in the middle of the ship channel and I ain't movin'. Nice." I looked at the two little outboards sitting the motor well. Don't even think about it, they seemed to say. Oh, well...
It turned-out that I had just enough of a breath of breeze to ease forward, and no ships came by. My vessel slowly walked westward.
I tried to head more south than west, as was my plan, but the flighty wind would only push me west.
Me and Wind Song ended-up directly in front of downtown Saint Petersburg, and I was able to head due south with a little shift of the breeze direction. But now the day was passing me by. What was to be a five-hour journey was now turning into something much longer. I began searching the charts for a good place to anchor. But with the calm winds and no motor, my choices were limited. Actually, I'd been thinking about this possibility all day. A "bail-out" plan in case something went wrong. The problem with bail-outs: they suck. You may be in a worse position than you would be if you just keep going. So I kept going. And so did the sun, downward.
I turned-on my portable lights, a red/green one for the bow, and a white one for the stern. I was cruising southward in a renewed breeze from the northeast as the sun set behind Tropicana Field. In the cockpit with me, I had my charts, food, drink, two flashlights, some warmer clothes and gloves, and I was ready for my first night sail EVER alone. Jees, was it just this morning I was sleeping late still stuck next to shore in that little bay? Wow.
And you know what happened? Nothing. I mean, nothing except a happy happy happy sail through the night. Well that's not totally accurate...
...The channel buoys were well-lit, about one mile apart. I kept looking at my chart and compass and kept taking bearings on the lights. No problem. Sweet. Beautiful.
There was no other boat traffic until...until...Until I was trying to find the right navigation/buoy light to turn west into the Intracoastal Waterway channel which led four more miles to that little bridge under I-275. Suddenly a BRIGHT light from behind me, silent but all-encompassing, lit-up my little world like daytime! Was it God?
God: "You're being much too successful, Tim. You've overcome your fears and faced-down some of my nastiest challenges, and now you're having FUN, so now I've come to set you straight!" But no it wasn't God, it was the DEVIL, in the form of a SHIP one hundred yards directly at 6 o'clock, coming fast down the channel toward my stern. I didn't even hear the thing, or see it before this. I had seen "a" vessel's light, far back, a couple of minutes earlier, but had no idea it would reach me so quickly. At the moment, I was trying to see a marker in the night. I couldn't see the number on one side, so I decided to sail around it. I had to make a right turn, and was just about to do so, but had to assure myself this was the right nav buoy. It was indeed the correct buoy, but this was a hairy situation for a few seconds as I was turning and holding the flashlight and the chart and the mainsheet and being blinded by the ship's spotlight all at once. My sailboat had the right of way, but I gotta stay out of the way of ships. But, wait a sec, what's a ship doing over here?
So I simply slipped behind that buoy (I had already checked to make sure the depth was adequate) and out of the channel, and away from the spotlight. I knew the ship couldn't follow. I set my sights due west and lined-up the channel markers again. This was the Intracoastal Waterway (the "ICW") and I could see the red marker of the I-275 bridge dead ahead as I leaned over into the new channel. I looked behind me as we glided into the new channel, and watched the "ship" continue to move directly south behind me, away from me. It was a casino/party ship or something, all lit up, with lots of revelers walking about, and LOUD music playing. I waved and gave 'em the finger. Good thing it was dark. I was having a blast. For some reason, this had been a special moment. With distant lights glittering off the black waves, and my meager knowledge and little experience being tested, and all going well, I was ecstatic. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful...
So, just follow this last channel straight straight straight (in an ever-increasing and fresh breeze) and in an hour or so I'll be at anchor.
The wind was from behind me, my starboard quarter. All was fine until...until... Until the straight lights ahead of me started moving weirdly. Now, there are lots of lights out and about here and there --it's the edge of the Saint Petersburg metropolitan area-- but the navigation seemed fairly clear to me, having a (very) basic understanding of nautical charts and the buoy system. But this was weird. Was I looking at the wrong lights? What the heck? I reviewed my chart. No, this is right. But what is going on? What could it be? I started to turn a bit south, on a hunch. Sure enough, SWOOOOSH, my keel slid across some soil. Ah-HA! I was just off Point Pinellas, and the incoming tide must be strong here, I reasoned. And there was a shoal (shallow water) just to my right, and I was being pushed onto it! I swung Wind Song more to the south, and soon I was back in the channel. I had keep steering a bit south to maintain my westward direction. Easy. Ha! (Yeah, right...)
At this point, me and Wind Song were approaching midnight and were exhausted. We make the decision to pull-up just short of the bridge and anchor in a little area just to the north of ICW Channel, just before the bridge. It's about 10 feet of water, and there's lots of room, and that growing northeast wind shouldn't be too much of a problem. (One of the other things I had done the day before was to LENGTHEN my anchor line, by adding two sections of line I had lying about, using "anchor bend" knots, making my anchor rode about 175 feet, nearly doubling it, and increasing effective holding ability greatly.)
So we anchored. Easy now. Funny. I simply sail upwind, real close to the wind, so to speak, tie-off the wheel and then drop the mainsail, and run forward and drop the anchor. Suddenly all is quiet and peaceful as I let-out the now long anchor line, and my boat slowly drifts backward in the breeze.
Hmm...this breeze is getting even stronger, I notice, but I try to ignore this. In a few moments, the anchor is tied-off and the mainsail is tied-off. (I hadn't used the jib this day, owing to my lack of confidence in its use. It could have really helped, however, in those earlier light winds.) So I sit down and open a beer. Midnight. Holy cow, has this been all the same day?
You know, today I became a sailor, I mused. ...I sipped my Tecate, but something else was on my mind: waves.
Yes, while I've positioned myself so that the land helps break the wind, the waves from Tampa Bay are building and are bending around Point Pinnelas, obviously, and coming right down to me. Great. Bob, bob, bobbing along I go, up and down, up and down, yanking at the anchor over and over. I don't hesitate. I immediately untie the mainsail and start pulling on the halyard. Adrenaline takes over. I JUMP up onto the foredeck and pull strongly against the breeze and waves. It's tough going, up, down, splash...which confirms that I'm doing the correct thing. The anchor had been holding fine, but now it comes right out when I get directly over it, just like it's supposed to. I jump back to the cockpit as the wind catches the mainsail and we begin sailing before I even reach the wheel. I untie it and away we go into the night.
But we're not going far, if I can help it. We slip back over into the ICW channel, and then drive straight and FAST directly for the bridge. On the other side resides calm water.
The northeast wind pushes Wind Song scary-fast directly toward all that dark concrete and moving car lights above, and Oh My!, look at all the cars and trucks and buses here in the early hours of the morning, and all that concrete under 'em! And I can hear all that traffic now, I'm that close, and suddenly I'm there, and under the massive architecture, and it's black darkness everywhere as I follow the channel straight through there. I shine my brightest flashlight ahead, and all is well. I yell "AHOY!" and it echos, and I'm grinning like a kid, ear-to-ear! I laugh and laugh and continue sailing STRAIGHT THROUGH the passage, wind at our back, perfect. And out the other side I go, SWOOOOSH, and all is quiet and pleasant. I maneuver easily down the channel, then I get a little confused by this next crossing channel, and I know I must be careful, because there is a LOT of shallow water around here, but then my flashlight found the right marker. I headed a bit more west, and a bit more, then WHIP, SWoooSh, I turn back out toward the breeze and northward into an excellent little area just off Indian Key that Captain Richard showed me on an earlier trip in his sailboat. It's a bit breezy again, out in the open, but there are no waves. Waves will really mess with your anchor holding, and with your ability to sleep.
I tack up and up into the wind a ways, drop the mainsail, drop the anchor, finish that beer, and crash onto my inviting bed, again thinking, "Is this all the same day? Oh my god...." ...and sleep.
PART THREE: Into the Storm
"How I almost died," might be a good label for this part. Hmm... But I don't know. With an excellent sailboat, a certain amount of human folly is forgiven.
I had awakened that next morning, after that LOOOONG day and then NIGHT of sailing, completely exhausted and ill-at-ease. Sleeping hard, I dreamed of nothing, or was it everything? I dreamed of excellence perhaps? Or did I dream of foolishness?
The morning was windy. Me and Wind Song were not as far up the anchorage as I had intended. I watched two nearby buoys wobble in the breeze, or, wait, no, it was ME who was wobbling.
But I kept watching those buoys, suspicious. And YEP! there they go. The buoys were getting closer together. I was dragging anchor. I couldn't believe it.
A slightly strong daytime breeze was doing this, but how? I didn't know. It was a slow creep backwards. I dragged my butt forward and dragged the dragging anchor toward me. It wasn't catching on the bottom at all. But when I pulled it up I saw the culprit: grass. (Much of it was wrapped loosely around my anchor flutes. Strange, thick, tough grass, or weed, almost plastic.) The bottom here must be a resistant combination of firm soil and that slick plastic grass.
But wait a second!!! What the heck? I looked at my anchor: it was BENT ALMOST IN HALF! What the--? When did this happen? Oh my, oh my... It must have been bent back when I was at Apollo Beach and the cold front came in and I spent the night tacking back and forth in a panic, with the anchor digging deep into the seabed. And when I pulled it up with all that mud, I didn't even notice that it was so badly bent, and then, last night, I anchored twice, and but didn't notice the damage because it was dark. This is hilarious. EVERYTHING IS BREAKING! ...Aahhhhh...Oh, well... Onward!
So I sailed further up. There was plenty of room.
I anchored again, but now up close to Sunshine Channel and I-275. This broke all possible waves and a lot of the breeze. And my bent anchor held finely until I left the next day. Whew! ... (Truth be told, I tried to make it up to a little area behind Indian Key, adjacent to O'Neils Marina, where several other sailboats were anchored. I don't know if anyone was living on those boats, but it was a very protected area. Unfortunately, it was directly upwind, and I had to SAIL straight up that narrow channel against the wind. I was so tired from the previous day that, after trying to beat upwind for fifteen minutes, I gave up and anchored.) I chose to simply rest and make plans for the remaining hours of the day.
A particularly hard-charging pod of dolphins called that area home. One dolphin, in particular, seemed to swim fiercely right at my anchored sailboat and then dive underneath and then come out the other side, splashing vigorously, slapping the water in his swimming motion. He/she did this several times.
I wanted to make a run down to Venice. About a 40 mile trip, it should take about 10 hours in a decent breeze. I listened intently to the weather radio. The forecast didn't change, but, frankly, the NOAA broadcast could be confusing as it changed from inshore to offshore to farther offshore to land forecasts. It was all computerized, and lacked human care, so to speak. I mean, to a human, the word TORNADO in reference to a real event is stunning and vibrant and fear-filling, and this emotional implication is immediately communicated, whereas a computer program simply sees the letters T-O-R-N-A-D-O, and may drone non-chalantly about a warning without a care in the world. And while there were no tornadoes around that day, the point is the same. That is, the weather pattern across Florida was developing a low-pressure system which was intensifying. There was no clear evidence of this in the restricted computer-voiced statements. All I remember was the phrase "fifteen knots" and a reference to "twenty knots," but that was to be well-offshore. In fact, Tampa Bay waters were supposedly going to be safe the next day, with perhaps a small craft advisory offshore. And I already KNEW, approximately, what fifteen knots in the mouth of Tampa Bay felt like. Me and my friend Alex had been out in that sort of stuff one year earlier, going right around Egmont Key and across the dangerous ship channel. It wasn't a big deal, even in his lightweight, fin-keeled MacGregor 26. My heavy-weight, full-keeled Islander 24 was MADE for ocean sailing. Besides, I thought, once I cleared Tampa Bay and started south, I would "hug" the shoreline, as the wind was blowing out-to-sea. And, believe it or not, I was certain that the forecast was PERFECT. Some clouds to block the burning sun, and a consistent fifteen-know breeze blowing offshore across my beam (i.e., from the side). I went to bed early that night, listening to NOAA again, full of confidence.
At dawn, me and Wind Song were underway. I set my alarm clock (didn't think I'd need THAT device again!) for 30 minutes before sunrise, and I had a bag of food and drink and binoculars and charts and all that, all ready to go. I awakened, jumped up promptly, pissed over the side, took a swig of caffeinated soda, and noticed I didn't need a jacket since it was so warm. In the lightening darkness, I hoisted the mainsail, and then handily brought in the anchor, and was OFF!
The Sunshine Channel was about 4 miles long from my point to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, where the ship channel and that deep, huge area of Tampa Bay's mouth awaited. The wind gently glided over Interstate 275 just to port a quarter of a mile away, and filled my one big sail. Traffic was rushing on the Interstate noisily like some grumbling monster. I had made my escape from that entity! I'm free! ...Or so I thought. [2018 EDIT: that one image, of the vehicles moving on I-275 as I sailed down the channel in my sailboat, has stayed with me. It represents our contemporary madly rushing society I suppose, and I truly thought I had escaped that monster. Perhaps soon I will. Things are afoot in 2018!]
I was going due south, and the breeze was softer than expected. The jib halyard lay there, becoming, but I decided to wait. "Let's see what it's like out on the ocean proper. Besides, the mouth might be pretty bumpy with the tide coming in against an outgoing wind."
Man, I was juiced. I was SO looking forward to my first ocean passage. Of course, I was going to take it easy. Just slide southward right next to the beach, maybe a quarter mile off, or less if I felt comfortable. Maybe see a couple of girls on the beach, and wave, and tune in whatever radio stations I could find. Sit back with a soda and a sandwich and steer with one bare foot on the lightly-trembling wheel. There was supposed to be some rain, but the temperature was quite mild.
...Nice... This was sailing, nice easy sailing, down this Sunshine Channel toward the mouth.
The day finally lit the world around me fully, and me and my Islander eased slowly toward our destiny.
The Sunshine Channel ended just as it reached the bridge. I didn't need to go under the bridge, since I'd crossed under the interstate highway two nights earlier. I had my waterproof chart out, neatly folded and clipped onto an old Masonite drawing board. As soon as I passed a certain marker, I turned southwest. I wanted to steer clear of some submerged posts. I didn't know exactly what the chart was talking about, but then I saw the posts off to my starboard side. Little did I know at the time that I would be passing them again in 24 hours in a raging, wild ride back to safe harbor.
Things broke-down quickly as I turned southwest and toward the open sea of the Gulf of Mexico. Behind me stood the Skyway Bridge, looking to be a cousin to the Golden Gate. The water was deepening here, 20 to 30 feet, but care still had to be taken. Ahead of me a couple of miles lay Egmont Key, lonely, beautiful, more in the Gulf of Mexico than in Tampa Bay. I had to zip by its southern tip, but not too close, but not too far away, because a shoal guarded much of that pass. I lined-up some markers on my chart, each a mile or two apart, and then lined-up the heading on my compass and on my bow.
I had my camera, and I was using it. But as I got farther out, and the bridge got farther away, and the wind grew, I considered putting it away. And soon, there I was, cruising faster and faster downwind, and a couple of healthy waves lifted my stern and slid us forward, like surfers, me and Wind Song.
At one point, I turned and snapped a photo of the dinghy which was tied to the stern. The Skyway bridge and waves were also caught in the pic. (See it at the beginning of this post.) But then, as I turned back around, the boat TWISTED or something, it seemed, and I almost dropped the camera as I grabbed the wheel. "Time to put you away." I closed the camera into its case. "Whooaa..." I groaned as the boat rocked uncomfortably in another direction. I immediately realized that the smile on my face had disappeared.
On thing I didn't have in the cockpit with me was my weather radio. I had checked the forecast the night before, and all was fine with it. "Perfect," was my thought. But now I was thinking I needed to check it again. But, really, it was too late. The waves were getting big enough that I had to pay CLOSE attention to the wheel. No going below to grab anything at all.
The waves built very quickly, as did the wind. I mean, this was all a matter of a few lonely minutes. And then, with EVERY wave, My 3000 pound Islander SURFED downward at incredible speed. This was unexpected. I looked around me. What is going on here? I saw another sailboat in the distance, just off Fort Desoto's beach, beating upwind, coming in from the gulf. It was POUNDING forward violently, up and down, crash, crash, crash, up, down, pound, crash... Hmm... What is going on here? This was suddenly A LOT worse than when me and Alex were out last year. "I just need to get out to the open Gulf waters and south of the Tampa Bay entrance. Even if it's windier than expected, I'll just hug the coast. No waves at all there, since it's all blowing out to sea. Of course, at that moment, so was I.
I was careful to keep the chart near me, and the compass aligned. I aimed for the southern tip of Egmont, and I was confident that-- BOOM!-- "What the--?"
I looked back. The dinghy was gone. What the--? Did it explode? What the--? Then I saw it off to starboard, skittering across the waves at a shocking speed, and then it completely disappeared behind crazy-looking waves and spray. "I need that dinghy!"
I turned to port to stall the sail, and WHOOOOOOSHHHH a big wave hit me directly on the side and OVER the boat goes, WAY over, HOLY CRAP!, and I jerked the wheel back to starboard and fill the sail again and SWIIISSSSHHHH I'm raging down the front of another wave. "Where's the dinghy?!!!"
I never saw that dinghy again except for a slight glimpse about a minute later, with it maybe half a mile away to my right, popping up over a wave, heading west directly toward Egmont Key's eastern beach, at an angle to my southwesterly direction.
I didn't have time to worry about it. I pulled in the towing line so it wouldn't get caught in my rudder, and discovered the dinghy's handle still tied to the end. I hadn't tied the line to any other part of the dinghy, but it never occurred to me that this would be a problem. Man... It made me SICK to lose my dinghy, which I needed to go to shore, but there was simply no getting it back at that point. I had to get out of that tide and wind battle which was ripping at my hull and rudder and soul.
I stayed the course. Soon another nav buoy was passed, and soon I was at Egmont. I cruised right by, and right by a marker, right where it was supposed to be, and suddenly I was on the open ocean. Whoa... Dude...
The conditions changed some. They got worse. The waves were bigger, and the wind was stronger. Soon the wind was deafening unless I kept my head turned a certain way. It literally took my breath away. That roaring sound was unnerving, and suddenly it occurred to me: this might be it. How strange. This is how death approaches, perhaps. The idea is very clear and calm: We walk right up to death and say hello. "Yes, I understand. There's nothing I can do. Got it. What's next?"
I begin imagining the events:
Something breaks; water enters; my radio is broken, so I can't for help; the dinghy/lifeboat is gone; I put on the life preserver, OK, and grab the flare kit, but what's the point? The boat is sinking out from under my feet and I don't have time to get food or water, and the waves are THUGS pounding at me, knocking everything around, and suddenly I'm in the water alone and the flare kit is gone, and I'm blown out to sea. News story at 11. Then all is forgotten of Timothy Brent Gardner as there's a little ceremony but no body, and everyone goes to McDonalds afterward, chit-chatting, with a sense of relief.
But maybe not. Maybe I'll make it to Venice.
I saw a crabbing boat, and a nonchalant working sailor. He and his boat bobbed up and down less violently than me and my Windsong, it seemed. It was the only other vessel in sight. I was surprised he could work in these conditions. I wondered if he was worried about me--or laughing at me.
Me and Wind Song continue seaward.
We had to go a certain distance out to sea, a mile or two, before turning south, in order to avoid the shoals off Anna Maria pass. But once there, I could head south, and even beat southeast, and get back close to shore and FLY down to Venice pass, 30-something more miles south, whhoooo-wweeeeee! And once safely inside Venice pass, I figured I'd maneuver over to the county park's nice, free dock and park it overnight and go find a cheap rubber raft, although first I'll head to a beach-side restaurant and have a steak and a couple of Red Stripes and bring a pretty girl back to my vessel/home after telling her of my bravery and introducing her to Red Stripe Jamaican beer. ...I gots a hundred bucks, and I deserve a celebration!
But first things first. Get out to sea. Turn left. Go straight a bit. Then turn a bit more left, straighten, go like this for a few hours, and voila! I'm there. Easy.
...If it weren't for the fact that I was now TWO MILES offshore and off course.
I could see the final buoy far off to starboard, and I realized I was actually WAY off course. Then again, I was leaning my route this way, cheating toward south, knowing my shallow-draft of three and a half feet would likely be fine, and...and... And then came the real surprise.
Surprise, surprise, surprise!
The wind is shifting.
Instead of a wind out of the northeast or east, it's coming more and more out of the SOUTHeast. OH NO, this CANNOT BE! It's on the nose! In fact, the tightest I can pinch it is 180 degrees. This isn't enough.
I think, I hang on, I grapple with the chart and the wheel, bracing my body. We're going UPWIND now, and WOW! I wish I had a video camera: UP then DOWN and CRAAASH! into another wave, just like in those Perfect Storm movies. "Nice...," I think, sarcastic, yet, I don't know... There was a sense of satisfaction in a weird way. I was relieved that I was finally DOING something interesting. Or something... I'm not sure.
It was interesting, indeed. The boat would lift over a wave and downward a bit and there'd be this "shudder" of the whole vessel as it appeared to LEAP forward to meet the next steep wave face, which then resulted in that CRASH and whitewater everywhere, crashing in all directions, sideways, away, near, straight up, and then all over me.
At some point I noticed that I was wearing my jacket. I had no idea when I had put it on, or HOW. I had one hand on the wheel and one hand gripping the cockpit coaming or a stanchion on the upwind side, with one foot bracing against the other coaming BELOW me, as the boat was heeled far, far over, with the leeward rail almost in the water. When did I put on the jacket? Maybe I had it on the whole time? ...I had worn blue jeans, thinking there might be rain and a little chill. I also had a baseball cap on. The jacket's hood was tied tightly over it, and the cap never blew off during my entire adventure. The cap was intended to be good for keeping rain off my glasses. Of course, it never rained this day. But I was soaked head-to-toe due to the constant crashing spray. I occasional cleaned my glasses, but rarely, and only with a salty finger pulled clumsily across the salty lenses. (Note: Thinking about this again, a month later now, I don't think I had my cap on that day at all. Just my long hair twisting in the gale. Funny.)
Crash. Crash. Crash. Onward I went (and ultimately slowly, despite the harrowing movement and wild slamming into the steep waves). I headed south. No other boats at all now. Wait, no, there's a boat. Help! I want to say. I look again. It's the Coast Guard! Holy Cow! Look at 'em go! Their boat was heading due south, too, but, man oh man, that boat was flying! Skipping over the waves with inhumane ease. They may have been hailing me. I'd never know.
Ten O'clock. That's it? Ten AM? Jees, I still have the whole day ahead of me, but... I don't think this is going to work. I think I might break the boat apart before I get to Venice. ...UNless I can get back close to that beach. If I can make a couple of miles south, I can then head back north east and then back south again, and then back again, and BEAT my way to the beach.
So kept heading south.
Crash. Crash. Crash. My old Islander was shuddering, crying, brave. I never intended to EVER put her through this before completely refitting her rigging and certainly not before getting her truly seaworthy, which meant a WORKING VHF RADIO, and a lifeboat, and little things like that. "But at least I have a life jacket," I thought. "But wait a second!" I realized I wasn't WEARING the life jacket. It was lying peacefully in my big bag on the cockpit floor in two or three inches of sloshing water. I could see part of the life jacket through the opening of the bag. I never put it on.
But, wait a second. Water? In my cockpit? Indeed, there was a LOT of water sloshing around in the cockpit. Am I sinking?
I decided I had to look inside at the floor of the deep cabin, to see if water was in there. If so, it might soon be abandon ship time. But what would "abandon ship" consist of? Me in a life preserver in the middle of all this...this...this SHIT? No way. Or maybe...Maybe I could swim those two miles to shore. Maybe the wind would not have much of an effect on a person in the water. Certainly, I would use every fiber of muscle and soul to make that swim, if needed.
And then I came upon an idea. If Windsong begins to sink:
Put the life preserver on. Put some water and food in a drybag. Throw the anchor overboard. Untie the anchor rode from the cleat. Tie a boat fender to the bitter end. Jump into the sea holding onto that fender and drybag. As I watched Windsong sink, I would be both floating and anchored to one position. Wait out the wind. The next day, the weather system would clock-around and blow me to shore. Easy! Assuming I didn't die of exposure in the warm-but-not-warm-enough Gulf of Mexico waters.
Somehow I DID manage then to look into the cabin. I just made quick LEAP. DRY! "I'm not sinking!" And now a leap BACK to the wheel. But too late. I had lashed the wheel, but, crap, we got turned sideways and BANG, a wave is hitting from a weird direction and I close my eyes as water slams against me and I fall. Not far, but I definitely fall. But I don't feel anything. I'm instantly scrambling to the wheel. We regain control. A knee and a hip and a shoulder feel funny. That's interesting. No pain, just funny. Interesting. And my left hand's fingers won't move. No, wait, now they're moving. I can't feel anything except...except...except for this devilish rhythm of up up up and down/leap/down crash!!! ...over and over...
It wasn't noon yet, but I knew it was futile. I'd hardly made any headway, and now I couldn't even keep the bow on a south heading. The helm was being pushed more and more southWEST. ...But I was getting used to it, this rhythm, this pounding, this saltwater sea of motion. I don't remember ever feeling fear. Just a dull ache in my heart, and the certainty of a job to be DONE, but no fear. Very strange. I think, nowadays, thinking back, that I was indeed afraid, but the overwhelming DEMAND of the utility of the day, of the NEEDED ACTIONS, and, to be honest, the NOVELTY of the experience, overcame all feeling of fear and replaced it with an kind of intellectual experience, a wonderful intellectual experience, combined with a wild athletic drama. It didn't feel romantic, and I didn't take anymore pictures.
But futility it was. Even if I COULD make it in close to that shore, by the time I made it down to Venice, the night would have fallen, and perhaps the wind would be greater, and even more southerly. It's not gonna happen today.
So looked back the way I came. DUE NORTH of me was the lighthouse of Egmont Key, flashing Welcome, a few miles away. So me and Windsong turned around and headed due north. This would take me right over the shoals I just spent so much time going AROUND, but I didn't care. I hoped to slide right over 'em neatly. Besides, if I came across breaking waves, I would know to turn out toward sea. Since the west coast of Florida leans toward the west as one goes north, and since the wind was turning more southerly, I could certainly make it back to shore farther north, even if it meant CLEARWATER.
So I started north. I planned (there I go planning things again!) to work my way back to that same anchorage where I'd stayed the night before. I should be back by dark. I never made it.
I've failed at everything in my life, and now here I was, failing again, I thought. I remember reading that people who get lost in the woods don't die of starvation, they die of SHAME. They're embarrassed to have gotten lost, and ashamed that they didn't know how to survive, and consequently they would give up and make bad decisions, and die of exposure and/or dehydration, while vegetation (for warmth) and water (at the bottom of most valleys) was all around. I thought about this. I too felt embarrassed, ashamed that my life was a failure, and here is another example, perhaps the final example. It all fit perfectly.
I kept heading north. And very soon, amazingly, I was approaching the south tip of Egmont Key again. I had to make it back up that channel, but I couldn't quite make it, and had to TURN again. South, south, south I went across that wide channel. The incoming tide was ending, I knew, and I knew I had to hurry to avoid the outgoing tide. When I reached the nav buoy out in the middle of the channel, I knew I had to soon turn around and beat back north and east again, because deadly shoals awaited further south in that channel. I waited as long as I could, and turned.
Crash! Boom! Crash! I turned, and realigned, and soon realized I couldn't make it. My mainsail alone wasn't allowing me to go upwind at an acute enough angle.
"I must put up the jib," I realized. OH. MY. GOD.
PART FOUR: FAILURE
Egmont Key from the north:
Oh. My. God. "...I must get the jib up." In that wind, it seemed impossible, but I had to try.
I pointed up into the wind, and secured the mainsail directly in the middle, and I lashed the wheel directly in the middle, and I waited. I wanted to see what would happen.
And, well, a miracle happened! That is, NOTHING. Wind Song seemed to just SIT there, laid-up and happy like a cork on the water. We were "in irons" as they say, and essentially hove-to. If the wind started to push her in one direction, she would round up into the wind and just putter about, maybe moving forward slightly, but not much. Good!
Now for the jib. This thing is WAY too big for these conditions, I knew. But, here goes... It went right up, and then
it caught the wind, and WOW
we were off like a race horse!!!
I didn't realize how useful a jib is in going upwind. (The lift in the physics of the thing really pulls a sailboat in a way that makes it "point" better.) Man, we were FLYING! Now I knew.
But I had two problems. One, pulling the jib sheet (the rope) in all the way and securing it was ENORMOUSLY difficult. Second, Wind Song was now heeled so far over that the leeward wave action was coming right over the leeward rail (top edge of the hull) and threatening to plop right into the cockpit. No way. Much much too much sail area.
So, down comes the jib! I released the halyard and the jib slid right down. Actually, it came down in a huge mess. I ran forward and secured it haphazardly, and went back to the cockpit.
Hmm... That didn't work! Or, really, it DID work, but there was too much sail up. I needed a smaller jib, and I needed a way to reef the mainsail. ...Man, I NEVER intended to get into these type of conditions before making those improvements. Oh, well... It was embarrassing. I knew this day was an embarrassment for me. I should not be out here. I should have listened to the forecast in the morning right before I left.
But make the best of it, I thought.
But first things first. I had to piss. I would have simply pissed over the side, but there simply wasn't anything substantial enough to hold onto. My docile Wind Song had been transformed into a bucking maverick. So I secured the helm again, heaving-to essentially, and waited a moment to make sure it would take care of itself, and I went below to fill-up a water bottle, so to speak. ...Inside, trying to stand was near impossible. This kinda scared me. Made me realize just how much movement/abuse Wind Song was taking. ...And pissing? Ha! I fell...TWICE! The second time, the urine stream went flying toward the ceiling and all over. Hilarious! I laughed out loud! I got up and managed to finish, sort of... I hurried back up the companionway ladder, a smile smeared across my face.
The afternoon was upon us. "Two o'clock? Oh, my... I need to get out of here!" I needed to get to safe harbor. No more smiling.
But I had to figure-out how to get the jib up and the mainsail down, simultaneously. Hmm...
And somehow I did it! A little at a time, I'd bring the mainsail down a bit, and pull up on the jib halyard, back and forth, back and forth, fearing that if I lost all sail power at any point Wind Song would get turned sideways to the waves, and I didn't know WHAT would happen then. So I wrestled with the sails, I wrestled with the wheel, I wrestled with... the sea.
And finally the main was down and secured around the boom, and the jib was up and trimmed and, WOW, we were storming forward better than ever! THIS is working, I thought. Woo-hoo!
Of course, I had two problems. The day was slipping away, allowing an outgoing tide to reach full force, and allowing night to get nearer. I did NOT want to be out here at night, not fighting this anyway, so close to shore. No way. And the other problem was the jib itself. It was so big that it was virtually impossible to trim properly, even with the winches. Over and over it would rip from my hands and winch, even when it was "secured" in a jam cleat!
But we were still rushing forward AND UPWIND nicely. I can do this, I thought.
Tacking became the real problem, however. Going upwind in a sailboat, you're really just going upwind at an angle, making a few degrees of advance, and then you turn the opposite direction and make a few degrees of headway upwind, in that direction, like climbing a mountain on a goat path, back and forth, back and forth. But tacking, that turning I had to perform over and over was, well, it was ruining everything. Every time I turned, I had to untie the jib sheet from one side, and then retie it on the other. That doesn't sound like much, but what it means is that the sailor must again TRIM the sail, which means PULLING. And, man, I pulled and pulled and pulled, using the winch for help, and SWOOOOSH-ZIIIPP! the line would slip from my gloved hands, and I pull and pull it back. And in the meantime, we're getting blown the wrong direction, losing all the gains we'd just made! Over and over! ...This was surely a section in Dante's Divine Comedy. I am the man who pushes the boulder up the mountain, only to see it fall all the way back down again, over and over. That's EXACTLY what I was thinking.
This ain't happening. I was utterly exhausted. At one point, I had a strange feeling of clarity. I simply looked around. Everywhere, there were breaking waves. Everywhere, the gale was blowing off the crests off the waves, leaving streaks of white across the boiling surface. Boiling surface. That's it. It looked as if Poseidon was cooking-up a salty stew for his Olympic buddies.
I'm outta here.
I knew I had one more "bail-out." I could simply slip around to the side of Egmont Key, on the GULF OF MEXICO side, and I would out of the waves. Unfortunately, the area, especially the south and north ends, was very shallow. But I didn't care. I looked up. We were only a couple of hundred feet from the southern tip of Egmont's beach. White sand, and calm waters. So inviting. Here I come!
I checked the chart. Must avoid some shoals, but I DO NOT want to go too far BACK OUT TO SEA.
...I make it. We zip quite quickly right into the lee of Egmont.
Nice! No more waves. Even though I was on the ocean side of the island rather than the bay side, I was protected from the waves because the wind was blowing out-to-sea.
Strange. So quiet, so suddenly. Or not really QUIET, but smooth. The gale was blowing directly over the island's trees and then right down into my rigging, which sang its lonesome song.
Peaceful though, no matter. We effortlessly slipped toward the beach, getting as close as we dared (about 50 feet away). Down goes the anchor.
The wind quickly eases us back away from the beach as I hand-out the anchor line. More, more, more line. I'm letting it all out. I tie it off. Peace. I sit down atop the forward hatch. Peace. I notice that I'm breathing hard. My mouth is open. I hear the air rushing in and out. I am completely, utterly exhausted. But there's peace now, and relief. What tomorrow will bring I do not know. The night is almost here. I sigh, I sigh long and hard. It's all a huge failure. But I'm safe. Safe again. ...But, wait, what's that sound? Plip-plop, plippity-plop. The sky begins to rain.
Egmont Key Lighthouse
PART FIVE: VICTORY?:
I slept for an hour or two, fitfully. Night descended quickly. I got up and ate something, and drank a beer half-way, and watched the night. The wind still howled above me, Behind me, a half mile, I could see the white rollers out to sea, and all that boiling, even in the dark. Man.
The weather radio told me of the changed forecast. I'd been in "Near Gale" conditions, which, really, is the same thing as gale conditions, more or less. Not a "Strong Gale" and certainly not tropical storm conditions, but, really, not that far off. All watercraft were more or less "ordered" to get off the water, or "strongly encouraged." The Sunshine Skyway Bridge had closed. But I was safe.
About 11 PM, I went to bed, all warm and dry. I noticed that, while lying in my bunk, I could simply turn my head and see the flash of Egmont's lighthouse beacon. As long as I could wake-up during the night, glance over at the port window, and see that flash, I knew I was OK. I mean, if I WERE to drag anchor, it would simply mean I'd be slowly pushed out to deeper water. No disaster. When the wave action picked-up, I'd be awakened, and I could get up and deal with it, no big deal. But I didn't drag anchor. My bent anchor held fine. Of course, I DID wake up a couple of times during the night, but each time I would casually turned my head to look to port and saw the flash of the lighthouse, and I fall back to sleep, feeling dead.
At dawn I was up. The tide chart showed that the incoming tide wouldn't hit until the afternoon, so I had to wait. The bad conditions were forecast to stick around for another 24 hours, but the wind would turn more toward the south and eventually southwest the next day. Some sort of low-pressure system was wheeling around the Florida peninsula somewhere, causing this havoc. The NOAA computerized voices' statements were often hard to decipher. What's really going on? I couldn't figure it out completely. NOAA just droned on and on with endless numbers.
I made a decision. I would GO. "I can't stay here and wait for the wave action to start moving around the island. So I pulled-in the anchor. It was full of beautiful sand. And as I did, I realized that the wave action was ALREADY starting to move around the southern tip and bend around toward us. As soon as I got the anchor it, me and Wind Song made a u-turn for deeper water. Don't want to get caught on a lee shore.
But we didn't go far. A couple of hundred yards at most. We sailed then north, and then back south, following the beach, but well away. I watched as the waves, over the next hour or so, started really slamming the beach. I'd gotten away just in the nick of time. The gale was coming from nearly due south, or at least it seemed that way. The energetic waves were coming from the south, that's for sure.
I HAD to find safe harbor this day. I was exhausted. I hurt all over. My hands were raw and were so stiff I couldn't close them.
So we sailed under mainsail. This way were very maneuverable and even nimble.
Looking at the charts, and feeling slightly desperate, I decided to do something slightly foolish. Instead of following the chart and going WAY out to sea to get around the shoals at the north end of Egmont, I would simply drive Wind Song as fast as I could directly across the shallow water. With the waves moving in, I knew it would be rough, but I thought it a good risk. The tide was only now just beginning to go out, so we were still at high tide, mostly. This can work.
As so we did it. We just DID IT. We headed for the shoals. It was only a 30 second trip, due north, here they come, here they come... And suddenly me and Wind Song are lifted UP UP UP ... and we're SURFING! "WOO-HOOOO!" I shout, grinning ear to ear. But then we begin to broach, turn sideways. This was the great danger, especially with no jib. Get turned sideways to the big wave, and then OVER you go, capsized, shipwrecked.
We were a hundred feet from the beach, at the northern tip, and as we surfed, and broached, and as I violently turned the wheel to try to correct us, I spotted the crashing waves on the beach, in my periphery vision, they were no near!, and I remember thinking, "This is so much better than sitting in front of my PC all day, surfing the Net and playing artificial games."
And suddenly we straightened, and we didn't hit bottom, and we made it! "Woo-hoo!" We were thrown right around the tip of the island and out into...into...into the big ship channel. And, of course, as we cleared the island's tip, and I could see around the island's trees, I immediately noticed a ship RIGHT THERE, hurrying down the channel. Holy cow! I turned to starboard and back upwind, aiming the the channel marker. The ship had to stay out in the channel, but I wasn't sure exactly where I was in relation to the channel, too much happening too quickly, but I knew I wanted to get close to that buoy/marker. Man that ship is FAST, and CLOSE. ...But I was never in danger. I eased along the edge of the channel, and passed nonchalantly between the buoy and the beach on the very northern tip of the Island. We were briefly out of the waves again.
But, look at this! All of Tampa Bay opened ahead of me as I beat eastward. The ship passed to my stern, and I faced the bay and could see the Skyway bridge, a few miles to the east. That was my goal. Fight through the bay to near the bridge, and then along the little Skyway yacht channel over to where I'd been the previous morning, next to Indian Key and safety.
Yet, could I make it upwind? I still needed to work upwind mostly. Hmm... We'll see. And the TIDE! The tide is coming out! I mean, I could always drift off toward Fort Desoto Beach and throw out the anchor again, but that's a stopgap. I REALLY needed to find safe harbor and get some real rest TODAY.
So me and Wind Song SLOWLY beat windward for over 3 hours. Another ship, actually, got in our way. I think it was dredging the ship channel or something, drifting about here and there...I don't know... But then it moved and we continued, and actually never broke course in our tacking.
"That damn ship better move, 'cause I ain't tackin' more than I need today," Wind Song snarled. I saw men atop the ship, and I wondered what they thought of me and my little sailboat, bouncing up and down, up and down. They were watching me. I wondered if were hailing me... Funny.
And so we made it. One last long tack toward the northern end of the Skyway bridge, about an hour's worth, and we were nearly home-free. The waves were getting knocked down again too, as we were gently getting into shallow water. I cheated farther toward the north, around the eastern side of Fort Desoto park, and I looked and looked for the yacht channel. I couldn't find it. I knew it was there somewhere, but I couldn't find the buoys. I HAD to find the buoys. The water gets VERY shallow, as in ONE FOOT shallow, and you MUST be in the channel.
But finally we found it. "Four more miles, and we're home!"
This was nice. The channel was completely out of the waves, but as I headed due north, the wind was nearly dead astern. With only my mainsail up, the steering was squirrel-ly. And I must've really been wasted. I managed to have TWO accidental jibes. Good way to get yourself killed. The boom without warning swings forcefully across the cockpit. Bad for the rigging, bad for the nerves, bad sailing.
But, boy oh boy, we really flew otherwise. Smooth water, and the wind pushing fast fast fast "homeward," four miles to the north.
And before I knew it, we were there. Sweet, sweet, sweet. A careful jibe to port, and then another back to starboard, and up around to a good spot, and down come the sails and down goes the anchor. In a few moments, I was lounging in the cockpit, drowsy, but eating a little lunch. Soon, I retired for a wonderful wonderful wonderful nap. We did it! Wow...
Conclusion: A Kind of Tragedy:
Indeed, I'd never been so happy in my life. I had "found myself." I was what I had always been intended to be, a cruising sailor, an artist, a traveler of the world. OK, OK, so I hadn't gone very far, and I'd even FAILED to get where I needed to go. And I'd lost my dinghy, and of course, the two motors were useless and the radio was long dead, and I only had a hundred and ten bucks in my pocket... Yet I was easily happier than at any time in my life, and I HAD traveled greatly... greatly in my own soul. My new life stretched before me like a sunny warm day.
The next day, perplexed, I decided to take a quick sail back up to Apollo Beach. With the gale dying overnight, but with a still nice southwest breeze, I would zip up to Apollo Beach and call my friend Radar, and see if he would sell his dinghy to me, or if he knew of one... Or maybe he could give me a ride to Wal-Mart where I could buy a toy dinghy real cheap. SOMETHING anyway, to get me from ship to shore, so to speak. ...Hmm...There I go making plans again.
So I sailed, but it wasn't quick. The wind died while I was in the middle of Tampa Bay, and I wished I'd never tried. Oh well, halfway there... Radar will enjoy the story of my adventure, if nothing else, and then I'll head to Venice again with the right weather window.
And, yes, some breeze returned, and then a little cool front came in that afternoon, and I made it back into the Apollo Beach basin. But it took all day. Wasn't planning that. Aaahhh... And it's funny. Sailing suddenly seemed such a simple thing. I was still sore from my "adventuring," but I got both sails up and cruised around easily. Nothing to it! ...Again: funny.
But the next day things changed.
Captain Richard visited me and convinced me to come back down the canal (one mile!) and help him with his boat. He said he would pay for one month's dockage back at the same location as before, and I would paint the sheer stripe on the side of his sailboat and help with the wood trim brightwork. (He had returned from his charter cruise using his big diesel engine while I was out there fighting with only sails, and he said it was VERY nasty for them.) He said I would be foolish to head to Venice now, and that I should stay in Apollo Beach and work on his boat and then get a job at Circle-K or something and save money and fix-up my boat's problems. He also gave me a very nice 22 lb. anchor and 150' of good anchor line and chain, more or less NEW, and more or less FREE. "Now I know you're SAFE, son, with this ground tackle." Thank you, Richard.
Remember, Captain Richard was the one from whom I'd bought Wind Song in the first place (through the local youth sailing club/charity), and he and his wife, Thurline, had fed me meals many many times, and had given me a nice hand-held bearing compass as a parting gift a couple of weeks earlier. So... I went back down that damn canal to the dock. Richard towed me. As we moved along, I began crying. I'd been gone ten days.
Thurline aboard she and Richard's beautiful yacht Devana:
It actually didn't take long to do the sheer stripe. A few days. Mostly waiting for each layer to dry. But it was hard work. Some of the guys around the old yacht club there said, "Welcome Home!" I wanted to punch them, or cry again. I had to get out of there. The longer you stay at dock, the harder it is to get away. That's why I was terrified of coming back. I might not ever leave.
And I never did.
Me, after a long day painting the bottom of Windsong (notice the blue stuff on my hands):
I'm not sure how it happened. Some people wanted portraits, and a real cold front came in, and summer was over. I was desperate to get out before winter. I was desperate to get to The Keys. But I was curious about doing more portraits, and I started messing around with oils, which I considered the "ultimate" medium. And then I found a "free" place to dock the boat, and then winter hit HARD, it seemed. I did some portraits and caricatures, and made a little money, and sold my little 2 hp motor to my friend Radar for $100.
Next thing you know, it was January, and I knew it was too late. Man it was cold.
I became a real expert with Ramen noodles and such. Several people expressed interest in portraits and stuff, and I did some more work, but as 2009 got rolling, with the worldwide financial crisis hitting, everyone was fearing lay-offs, and then people I knew actually DID begin getting laid-off. Money seemed tight for everyone, and an artist is at the bottom of the food chain, economically.
Of course, this was the coldest winter in recent memory.
So I waited for Spring. I figured, come March 1st, I'm outta here. I had begun playing with watercolors, and discovered that, with gouache added, watercolors could be used almost like oils or acrylics. And the great thing about watercolors is that both the medium and the support are cheap and readily available. I could almost immediately begin selling watercolor paintings in front of one of the business in Apollo Beach, or even aside the sidewalk (until I got run off!).
So, I had plan... Or not.
My sister called from Texas. She said she'd buy a vehicle so I could get back to Orlando. (I'd already told her that I thought I might like to go back and try being a serious artist first, sailor second, so to speak. Plus, some family members were having trouble with a house up that way, and I thought I might be able to help with that, too.) And so my sister bought me a van! Wow! And then all my old friends in Orlando seemed to come out to help me, and I was told "You're part of the family, Tim, we welcome you back."
Alas, later, after things were starting to go well, I learned that I wasn't as "welcomed back" as I thought, it seemed. And then I was rejected for the portrait artist forum (through their jury process) to which I had so eagerly looked forward. That confirmed my suspicion: I was years away from being a top-notch portrait artist.
So, suddenly, with a SHOCK, I find myself wallowing around in Orlando and constantly wondering, "HOOOOOOWWWWWW the heck did this happen????!!!!!!!" ...I'm lost.
What to do? I don't know. I just got rid of Windsong in order to get another boat, but that new boat deal fell through, so now I'm just a lame landlubber again, shipwrecked. And I've been suffering the most acute depression of my adult life for several weeks now.
Hmm... My mind is coming back to life, however, and the depression is lifting with the warm, tropical weather of May in Orlando, Florida.... Aaahhhhhh.... Maybe I AM best suited to be a sailor first, artist second... We'll see.
Windsong reluctantly back at dock, a sad event: