This year’s EC was quite a sleighride for me up until my rudder troubles off Fort Myers Beach. But much was learned, and a great time was had, and I’ll attempt to share it with you here.
I was about a half hour late getting off the beach, due to the fact that I had to get my car and trailer over to long term parking after the roll call. This really didn’t make too much difference, as the breeze hit the shore about the same time I hit the water. Passing over the sandbars, I unrolled the jib, aimed a bit east of Passage Key, and set off into what became the light rain we got at the beginning. The winds were irritating me, and that, combined with a couple of days’ worth of sleep deprivation, led me to go outside at Passage Key.
Immediately, this became quite interesting, and I knew exactly how the Tidi-Bowl man must have felt as those bratty kids kept flushing the handle. I’m not sure I want to guess at wave heights, but I know some were well over 6 feet. I turned south just far enough off of Anna Maria to avoid the shallows, and proceeded to head downwind. I had just enough time to take a few bites of hot food from my thermal pot (more on this system later) and tidy up the ship a bit, when the wind really hit.
I rolled up the jib, but I knew I was going to have to carry full main until I found a sheltered spot to reef, as reefing while running downwind and sawing my tiller back and forth like crazy seemed a tad risky.
Like many small boat racers, I found the best balance of helm and sail on that downwind flight to be at about 6 to 10 degrees of heel. To windward. I’ve always felt odd sailing that way (I don’t usually like to sail from the lee side of a boat, either… we all have our idiosyncrasies I guess), but I was able to control the surfing much better that way. And surf I did, as I was traveling faster than most of the waves most of the time.
I did know that I couldn’t keep up that pace all the way down the coast in a 12.5′ sailboat, so I decided to get back inside at Longboat Pass. And THAT was the wildest minute I’ve ever had in a dinghy. I rode a foamy breaker at least 100 yards, clearing the sandbar and wondering how deeply I was going to sink into the aerated water flinging me along (the foaming water had so much air in it that it wasn’t fully supporting the weight of Discovery… it was like trying to float a coin on top of a foamy stein of beer!) as it was I took about a half-gallon of froth over each gunwale, and about 2 gallons over the stern. All at the same time. I made it through though, shot under the bridge, got all the water out, and passed Jewfish Key to the south, just in time to almost be capsized by a stupid little puff of wind hooking around the island. That gave me a solid 5 gallons or more of green water over the port gunwale, not to mention the loss of a chocolate chip (!) granola bar. GRRR.
All in all, the winds in the channel heading south seemed lighter, and the water calmer, so I decided to leave the full main up, and I even sailed for a while wing on wing with the jib fully drawing. This went well until I passed south of Bradenton Beach, and the bay opened up. I rolled the jib up, took stock, and decided to leave the main fully out, and proceeded to scoot down Sarasota Bay.
The waves began to build, not as high as in the Gulf, but nasty little choppers around 2 to 3 feet that kicked my transom all the way down the bay. They packed a lot of energy and momentum, and steering up, down, through, and around them was pretty fatiguing, and for the second time, I almost capsized. I could see that in order to hit the Sarasota Sailing Squadron beach, I was going to have to gybe, as I was getting too far east in the bay. I didn’t want to try a roll-gybe (remember, my best balance was heeling slightly to windward), so I decided to chicken-gybe by coming about.
I knew I was going fast, but I didn’t realize HOW fast until I started to round up, and the centripetal force almost capsized me. I took another 6 gallons or so over the lee rail, lost headway, and had to try twice more before I could stuff the bow around, let out the main, and proceed back downwind towards beach and bathroom. Fortunately, the Elvstrom/Andersen bailer I installed did a good job of removing most of the water shipped aboard each time I did so, and manual backup with a hand pump, small bucket, and sponge kept everything dry. Or so I thought. More about that a bit later.
Aiming for the Squadron beach, while dodging daring kiteboarders and toddlers in Optimist Prams (many of whom, at single digit ages, are likely more proficient sailors than I!), I beached near a number of kayakers. I ate some more food (hot and not), drank some water, and decided, perhaps belatedly, to change out of my spray top, and into my dry suit top. I wear a two piece drysuit, which is great on our trimaran Clarity, but if I use Discovery in future Challenges, I may well get a one piece suit for use in her, as the cockpit seatback tends to want to unroll the joining seam between top and bottom if I’m not careful.
I was feeling pretty cold, so I also added a fleece top over my long sleeved rash shirt, giving me 2 layers. I was already wearing heavy fleece under the drypants. I then tied in a double reef, and headed south under the Ringling Bridge towards Venice, and with any luck, a shot at the inside passage under sail, which I was lucky enough to get.
With the reefed main, the sail further south was much smoother, and not that much slower. I continued south, with my trusty SPOT continually popping out of tracking mode, traveling through Little Sarasota Bay, along Casey Key, and onto an island in Venice, going under bridges (all opened for me with no troubles except for Blackburn, where I had to wait about 10 minutes due to a maintenance issue).
Arriving on the island about 7:00 PM, I met with a number of other tribers, most who were continuing on, and a few who were staying there for the night. I was still feeling seriously cold, so I added another layer, and walked around the island for a bit before shoving off for the canal. I couldn’t remember who I met on the island, a fact I put down to overtiredness, but was really caused by another factor to be discussed in a minute.
I was able to sail down the Venice canal, dead down wind, in a light breeze filled, starry night of epic surrealism, with rock walls on both sides of me, and almost perfect silence. And refrigerator temperatures! I just absolutely could not keep warm, even after eating the last of the hot food on board. Up ahead in the distance, I could see a campfire on shore, so I headed towards it, to be joined on the way by Chip and Ian, two of the three SUP guys.
When we arrived, we found the fire somewhat tended not by fellow tribers, but by some young guys having a good time on the beach. Contributing firewood and stories, we shared the blaze until the young guys decided to head off to places unknown, with company perhaps less aromatic.
Chip and Ian scaled the bank (we were on Manasota Key) and pitched a tent, while I took off my boots and warmed my feet. And here is where I discovered why I was so cold… I had missed a crucial step in my layering system. As my two piece drysuit has no built in booties, my foot system involved 3 layers: wool socks, waterproof socks, and NRS neoprene boots with (supposedly) oyster bar proof soles. I had forgotten the waterproof socks! Now, it might seem obvious, but during the day, my feet can kind of FEEL wet in the boots even though they are not. Once the sun goes down, it does become obvious… provided you aren’t already too chilled to think clearly. And I was on the razor’s edge.
I warmed and dried my feet and socks at the fire, catnapping first on the beach, and then for a bit in the cockpit of my boat. About 2 hours later, I cooked some hot food, made coffee, and loaded up for the trip out. But, did I put on the waterproof socks? For some inexplicable reason, I did not. Perhaps it was because the wind was light, and CP1 was fairly close (but an hour further away than I plotted it to be). And all would have been ok except for one thing: I slipped in the mud, putting both nearly dry feet and boots right into the cold water, followed by both hands. Tiredly, I pushed on anyway, and sailed off to CP1. Initially, the sail was calm, with light air, but as Lemon Bay opened up, the gusts and waves began to get tricky, especially as I was tired and cold. There wasn’t any danger of capsize, but there was much risk of sailor/trucker language as my chilled body and brain began to get perturbed at the windshifts and chop. I was aware that this was another sign that I was too cold, so I ate a bit: a granola bar, some peanuts, and a protein shot. I wasn’t dangerously cold, but I knew the possibility was there. As cold, and adverse weather in general, is a big part of the Challenge, I pressed on.
For those of you who kayak exclusively, you have one major advantage when it’s cold: so long as you are moving, you are generating heat. On the other hand, and especially when sailing in light air, we blowboaters are moving less than congress approaching a recess. I was rapidly losing body heat, and approaching true hypothermia. I had drank coffee, but my food would not be cooked for another 2 hours, which turned out to be my arrival time at CP1.
After arrival, I drank some coffee, ate some of my hot food, and then, after warming my core a bit, I took a hot shower. Growing up in Minnesota, I had experienced hypothermia a few times, and I immediately decided that I wasn’t going anywhere until I knew I was totally warmed up. I set up my tent in the rising morning sun, and slept the day through, actually staying until Monday morning. It put me behind, but in much better shape, and with a nice weather window, when I left for CP2.
To be continued…