I still have posts coming regarding the 2012 Everglades Challenge, but I thought I’d take some time out to share an adventure from almost exactly 10 years ago, when I sailed my 16′ AMF Sunbird on a little vacation trip in Tampa Bay. Although I no longer own the Sunbird, I still maintain the AMF Sunbird Yahoo Group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/amfsunbird/ The group currently has 579 members (UPDATE: 740 as of February 2016), and the archives contain the most comprehensive information available on this fine little ship.
The AMF Sunbird, the Aquadyne Sailbird, and the Chrysler 20 were 3 boats that, as a kid, I wanted to own. As an adult, I’ve been lucky enough to own all three.
Note that this is a mostly unedited reposting from the Sunbird group, dated 1 October, 2006, in a message string regarding ‘Memorable Sails’! (The photos were added to this post at 5:30 EST 12 March 2012)
Well, I had to think a bit to decide which story to tell, but in the end, it was no contest………… Memorial Day Weekend 2002.
For well over a year a friend and I had planned on camping on a small island known as Skeet Key, in Tampa Bay, just southeast of the Skyway Bridge. We would launch from Peterson Bayou, and with high tide and a small powerboat, it was a 20 minute trip through the mangrove islands. However, without the exact winds needed, there was no way to make the shortcut, and you were left with a two to three hour sail. I’m sure at this point I’ll not have to tell you about the wind direction…..!
We had planned this trip pretty thoroughly, even to the extent of taking an entire skiffload of firewood out to the island earlier in the week, and camouflaging it. Yes, we hid wood with wood.
Our plan was to head out on a Thursday morning after packing Wednesday, and staying for a week. The first night would be us getting camp set up, and then we had others joining us. But, back to the sailing…….
We finished packing early on Wednesday, so we decided that we’d head out around 5:00, after eating a sandwich and staring longingly at the beers in the cooler. With provisions, I had about 300 pounds of stuff in my boat (we were going to have a total of 10 people out there, none of which had a boat!)
We launched with a 15 knot wind blowing directly into the bayou……. Eddie took off in his skiff and went off to the island to secure it (it’s a popular camping spot) and I started tacking out to deep water.
At this point it’s important to remember that by skiff it’s a 3.5 mile trip to the island, while I had to sail about 15 miles to get there. Singlehanded.
As I cleared the sandbar, heading due west, with the wind out of the NNE, I began to realize that there was going to be a bit more wind than I had first thought. The first 35 knot gust coming over Rattlesnake Key convinced me. Fortunately, I was sailing under main alone, just in case, and had the centerboard trimmed a bit aft, so the boat just kinda skidded a bit. And took a LOT of spray aboard. This went on for 4 miles until I got to the west end of the island, and was about to enter Tampa Bay completely. At which point I had a quick flashback to the storms I had seen on Lake Superior, as when I cleared the point, the seas were, literally 6 to 8 feet, in an area where the water is only 7 feet. A 36 foot sportfisherman, who cleared the point at the same time, turned and went back!
I had, by this time, stowed the gear a bit to the starboard side of the boat for additional ballast, and she was handling well (I had reefed the main when I saw the strength of the storm) so I kept on going, occasionally actually seeing the sand bottom in between the waves. After about 2 more miles of westerly sailing, the waves calmed down to about 3 to 6 feet, but, like the earlier waves, they were very close together, and very steep. I punched into 2 waves that shipped solid water over the cabintop. In most of these waves, and in combination with the wind, my visibility was about an eighth to a quarter of a mile, and I was a bit, um, nervous. OK, pretty much scared and totally freaked out! I actually thought about changing course and staying on another island for the night, but although I had all the cooking gear, Eddie had all the food! Plus, since the island is known locally as Gilligan’s Island, I decided to pass and go on.
I was sailing a very close reach instead of pointing, so I had to go a bit further out into the bay, but the ride was faster and smoother, so I doubt I lost any time. After coming about and checking in with Eddie (my half hour scheduled check-ins were only about 5 seconds long, kinda like “Strong wind, gotta go!”) I shipped my gear to starboard, settled in on a close reach, and headed for the island. Which I could not see due to spray and the sunset behind me, but I did have landmarks just to the north to aim for.
And hour or so of very exhilarating but certainly not relaxing sailing got me to, I thought, just NNW of the island, just after sunset. The wind had calmed down to about 20, but I was a bit too tired to unroll the jib, so I called Eddie to signal my position by flashlight. Eddie radioed back that I was far too north and I had to head south RIGHT NOW, so, reluctantly, I did. We stayed in constant communication as I headed south, but, finally, I said this has to be wrong. Eddie asked me how I knew that, and I said that since I was hitting the sand flats south of the island, I had a pretty good clue! Eddie got into his skiff, and motored out about 100 yards to where I could see him, so I headed north, refused the tow line, and ghosted in the last 100 yards in a 3 knot breeze. I spent a half hour in front of the campfire warming up, but as much as I was shivering, the exhilaration of that sail had me jumping up and down.
Oh, and just how did Eddie get my position wrong? The wind and high waves were intermittently blocking lights from St. Petersburg, about 10 miles away. Somehow, every time I blinked my flashlight, the waves blocked a light on shore. Eddie never saw me at all. He just confused me for an entire CITY!
This sail was actually more taxing than any sail I’ve done, including some rough Great Lakes stuff, but I’m completely glad that I did it. That said, I’d probably suggest mental help to anyone else who tried it, but it was the perfect beginning to a great camping trip.
And, when the trip ended, tide and winds were perfect, and I got to sail back through the shortcut, where no one of us had ever remembered seeing a sailboat before.