I omitted one piece of excitement from our trip from Tampa to Gasparilla. But since it happened again I guess I better own up to the first one now too. On the first day I missed a sign and ran into an under water island. The sign I missed is called a bifurcation sign which denotes a split in a channel and indicates the preferred channel, I was confused by this sign and accidentally went up the secondary only partially marked channel. Thankfully I had slowed the boat to a crawl before we hit and we motored off.
In boating in N. America, we use the rule Red Right Returning rule, meaning if you are returning from sea you keep the red buoys to your right. However on the intracoastal waterway the rule is “red right returning to TEXAS” which means that if you are headed away from Texas like us then you need to keep the red on your left. This is fine as long as you understand where the rules switch from ICW to standard rules. I messed this up when we hit the first time.
The second time we hit I also screwed this up too, I think. We were between the signs and headed straight to the canal going towards the marina, but hit the bottom 100 feet from the entrance. The tide was rising so all we had to do was wait but it was unnerving. We started dumping water overboard and using the sails to heel the boat over but likely the tide did all the work to get us off the sand bottom. Boating can be hard…
Back to the subject of the post :
We departed Gasparilla Marina at about 10:00 once the fog had burned off with still the decision between heading across Florida via the Okeechobe Waterway or heading south to the keys around the peninsula. I was excited for both, thinking getting across would be neat but going to the keys would be pretty sweet too. Tippy Billy did answer his phone in the morning and we booked a tentative time with him, but would call to confirm later. We headed south again which was another 6 hours of ICW toward San Carlos Bay which is the intersection between heading across or around the state. In the morning I was fully resigned to crossing using the waterway even though it would mean 3 more days of motoring to get through it – maps, low water levels, bridges and trying to find a place to stop at night. Yuk!
Three days of Leah single parenting while I drove for 8 – 12 hours a day had very little allure especially compared to going to the keys which people do annually because they love it. So we opted to go offshore and do one all nighter to get to the keys.
We ended up in Key Largo because of a discussion I had with a guy named Terry on Nektos, a boat I hailed because I was bored as we headed down the ICW. They suggested skipping Key West and heading to Key Largo instead. A study of the charts showed there was a spot called Yacht Pass that we could take to get to Long Key where there is a bridge that has 65ft of clearance, enough for Viatori to get through. Heading to Key Largo would also save 60 nautical miles (10 hours travel) when heading to the Bahamas compared to going to Key West.
We turned south out of San Carlos bay and out toward Cape Romano. The engine our purring along at 2000 rpm and the dinghy bouncing along behind the boat. We had dinner and everyone went to bed by 8:00. I stood watch until 10:30 when Leah woke me up because she couldn’t sleep any more – restless leg.
Offshore, keeping watch means babysitting the engine or sails and checking the horizon every 20 to 30 minutes to ensure you are not on a collision course with any other boat or hazard under water. I read and napped, Leah baked.
I slept until 2:30 when Leah woke me to take over. I watched the sun rise, checked the engine, napped, checked the weather, read and steered the boat. In my time at watch I saw 3 boats none of which were anywhere near us. Iniitally on my watch, I was going to watch the hobbit movie but blew the fuse in my inverter which converts 12volt DC power which we have lots of to 120AC which is harder to come by. I thought the inverter was shot so I took it apart but found no charred parts and decided to leave it alone until later. I found fuse hidden in the 12V cigarette lighter plug after a good nights sleep had cleared my head.
Being alone offshore with only the light from your boat around is somewhat eerie because when you look out to check the horizon you see nothing but blackness. I saw three boats through the night all heading away from me, Leah saw none. When the sun rose the only thing you see is water all the way to the horizon, with no land anywhere. Just the water and the clouds meeting somewhere far from you.
I think we fluked out because the portion of our trip that was overnight was also the furthest offshore between Cape Romano and the Northwest Cape and there were very few crab pots, not that I really know just that we didn’t hit any. When I woke the forecast was for thunder storms covering the upper portion of the keys, our destination, great. I watched as the lightning lit the clouds behind us, to the east and in front of us. But the forecast was right, the storms moved northeast while we headed south. When we got to the keys they had moved on.
Our new challenge was traversing the Florida Bay which is 10 to 20 feet deep for 30 miles littered with thousands of crab pots. We were lucky but eventually we did hit one and cut the float with the propeller and snagged the rest on the rudder. We stopped, I cut the rope between the weight and our rudder and we were free. To be sure I stripped off my clothes, tied a rope around myself and climbed into the water. The boys started singing “Dad is naked” and I swam down to check that no rope had wrapped around the propeller. Everything was fine. I climbed out of the water and showered on the aft deck before we continued on.
We motored for hours through the crab pot field hitting one more, but it popped off the moment I cut the engines and reduced speed. Then we reached Yacht Pass which is marked by a buoy at the entrance, a stake in the middle and two buoys at the end that you go between. The chart showed the depth to be 7 feet the whole way but it was low tide which reduced the depth by a half foot. I was going slowly through the channel when at the middle the depth sounder alarm said we were inches from hitting the bottom. I stopped the boat and we ghosted at less than walking speed for about a mile until we cleared the pass let the boat “sail” with a 5 knot wind pushing on the cockpit enclosure. Once we had passed through the channel I let out a loud YAHOO! It was a shallow victory as the boys were diving Leah crazy at that time.
We crossed the last of Florida Bay and went under the long key bridge and anchored at a place called Indian Key Anchorage, which had good holding but was pretty wavy. However the wind was out of the Northeast so anchoring on a lee shore in grass was not something I was going to chance so we accepted the rough anchorage and the sandy bottom. The boat rolled with the swell from the Gulf of Mexico all night.
It was probably the worst low this month as we ate spaghetti and everyone crashed after 34 hours on the move.
Through the night I woke to check bearings to ensure we weren’t moving and to go on deck in the rain to silence flapping ropes or the towels under the paddle boards that were slapping the hull.
I also took bearings with my binoculars to determine if the boat was dragging anchor or not. The binoculars I have need a little light to shine on the top of them to light the compass inside. I had a moment of fright when my cell phone, which I was using to light the compass, interfered with the reading… but I figured it out before taking any drastic action.
Pulled the anchor to find it bent, crazy considering it is over sized by nearly double compared to the recommendation from the vendor and general rule of thumb of a pound of anchor per foot of length… We have an 85 lb anchor. Warranty here we come. They are sending us a new part so that is all good.
Got up, made pancakes and motored to Key Largo where headed up a canal to park next to a pair of Canadians from Regina who have been coming here for 8 years and are already proving to be a fount of information about the area and the Bahamas too. Ordered Papa John’s pizza for supper put the kids to bed and soon we will be going to bed too.