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Home Force 5 Sailing Stories from Force 5ers One off the Bucket List
One off the Bucket List

Alec Dale 2/14/2008

I was very excited to see a listing for a Catana 381 cruising catamaran in Port Charlotte Florida, or Pennsylvania’s Pymatuning Sailing Club South as we have so many members there.  One of the issues was how to get the boat closer to Pennsylvania but it was certainly closer than the sistership which Sharon and I inspected in Rome. It turned out that my brother Mike, also a Force 5 sailor, and PSC members Jim Ewing (ex US1 sailor) and Ron McHenry (ex-fireball and present sunfish sailor) all had an interest in sailing the Gulf of Mexico around the Keys. Jim and Ron had set out with their friend Olin on Jim’s Morgan 30 but light winds only got them as far as Naples so they were gung-ho to go again.

The investigations of the boat and boat financing went smoothly and after a professional survey and test sail on November 8th with Jim Ewing along, the deal was clenched on December 3rd.  I had promised Sharon and our son, Elliot, that we would spend the winter break in South America so it wasn’t until January the 13th that I could meet the crew down there.  Is the 13th unlucky if it is a Sunday? The old owner showed up the next day to go over the electrical system, propulsion system, sewage system and water system, hydraulic steering system, etc…whew-- a lot to learn…every boat is unique.

After stocking up on food and buying out the local West Marine we motored out of the birth dragging in the mud as it was low tide. Under power with little wind we noticed lower than expected speed and  power  so we  had to stop to realign the hydraulic rudders, which probably did not like dragging in that mud.  Since we were heading windward in some light stuff, it was motoring-sailing with the main to the end of the Charlotte Harbor (20 miles) to get diesel. The first of many dolphins came to check us out.  We did not have gauges on the diesel tanks and could not see through as the plastic had become opaque with age but were assured by the owner that there was “lots of fuel left.” Well when we ran out of fuel for the port engine, I quickly shut it down so we might be able to avoid diesel-mouth bleeding the system to restart it. That left us with only one engine and limited maneuverability to get into the gas dock but,  as Jimmy suggested, the local marina guys were helpful in directing us to a T dock right down from the pumps and we were soon on our way with two engines again. I was so pleased that I did a forward-on-one-side-reverse-on-the-other spin out of the dock to the amazement of all.

 Once we passed the heads of Charlotte Harbor we were able to set sail and steer straight south on a beam reach in 10 knots of wind. We even set the asymmetrical chute.  After we had gone only about 10 miles the wind increased to 18 and then to about 25 so we ended up with 2 reefs and a sleigh ride.  We worked out the watches and Mike and Ron volunteered to do the dog. We decided to do 5 hour watches and start the dog watch at 2am.

No one felt much like cooking dinner as the waves were getting quite high with a fetch all the way from Corpus Christy.  Some mentioned 10-12 feet with a few 15 footers but I think that was an exaggeration. I did notice that some of the waves passed over the cabin and into the cabin before we thoughtfully closed the door. (The cabin top must be 12 feet off the water.) We thought at that point that we may arrive in Key West (about 160 miles) before sunset the next day as we were knocking the door on 10 knots most of the night. One crewmember asked why we couldn’t see any lights from shore and didn’t seem comforted by my response that we were seventy to a hundred miles from any land. (Note to self: sometimes around-the-buoy racers prefer to take courses closer to land). A crewmember changed into dry clothes to get some sleep before the dogwatch and was thoroughly doused with a wave while sitting in the normally very dry cockpit. He had to change again.  We couldn’t figure out how to dim the lights on the Garmin chartplotter (it turned out to be a rapid press of the on/off switch) so we just turned it off and sailed by the magnetic compass. We should have checked the deviation on that course before we did that. It was off 12 degrees to the west and that made us slide off course all night.

Mike and Ron were interrupted in their story-telling during the dog watch by a huge pod of dolphins checking us out. A second interruption was an abrupt wind shift that tacked the boat when the Genoa went aback.  We spent the next day beating into it and reducing at one point to only a double reefed main. It was pretty bouncy but the auto helm was amazing. At some point one of them fell into the Garmin and turned of the detail from the chip which took us a couple of days to figure out how to reset. Fortunately, we had a back up chart system on a laptop and PDA so we could access some chart detail.  We made very little progress until it lightened and still didn’t get close enough to make either Key West or Marathon the next day. I had suggested that we might avoid Key West as they were preparing for Race Week and would be crowded.  So when I turned in and let the dog watch heroes take over we were headed for Marathon. When I awoke at sunrise, the mutinous crew claimed to have been hit by a header and I found we were only 20 miles off Key West—well we did have a better course for the Dry Tortugas.   It had lightened up to a comfortable 8-12 knot breeze so Ron and Mike had shaken out the reefs and popped the Genoa.  Ron decided to troll for fish but we were still going too fast.  Key West was only slightly upwind 30 miles away and Marathon was directly upwind, 70 miles away.

Soon we could see the Tortugas, the Marquesas and Key West…Land Ho. It was clear we were going to Key West and would be there before nightfall.  A bunch of high fives and notes to cross Key West off the “bucket list” (in lieu of the currently popular movie about what one might want to do before kicking the bucket). There were a lot of crab pot floats and we had some excitement when dowsing the sails to motor into the harbor. I was at the helm and must have missed seeing a crab pot whilst trying to motor into the wind to let down the main. Having no volunteers and being the only one with a shortly wetsuit and mask, I got to do some skin diving in Key West. It only took 15 minutes and I learned that one should really use gloves to avoid being cut up by barnacles on the propeller. Since the motors were running I decided to have a nice hot shower and invited the crew to alternate in the showers in preparation for landfall as we had all gotten a bit steamy in 3 days sailing.

Key West was indeed crowded but we found a spot of an island a half mile from a marina that is often referred to as the Schooners Harbor because of the rental Schooners there.  Just as we set anchor and I tried to go into reverse to improve the set, I noticed the port engine lever would not go into reverse-something to check out in the morning. We looked up as she swung on the hook to see a 60 foot day-charter schooner under full sail scooting across the anchorage right at the bows.  Apparently it was a shock that to them that we had anchored.  The young helmsman  tightened up and managed to get across us missing us by mere inches and going on to do the same to other anchored boats on our port. Welcome to Key West. We inflated the inflatable and prepared a dinner with thoughts of doing the town the next day. Ron and Jim did some fishing off the back steps but only caught a small one which was rejected.  The steak dinner was memorable with incredible views of the harbor, surrounding reefs and gorgeous sunset.  After sunset Ron called me out on deck from his fishing perch to note the bow of a 60 foot trawler amidships as he was searching for an anchorage. Fortunately his deck man pointed out the problem and with some skillful twin screw work he was able to avoid us.

The sunrise and breakfast also offered memorable views of the Keys and reefs and boats. We opened up the control console and discovered that the shift lever had nothing to do with being stuck in forward and that the problem was in the transmission.  Oops that’s a problem. The transmission appeared accessible so we weren’t too worried at that point and made a note to find a Volvo mechanic on shore. We still had the starboard engine and I was getting a lot of practice docking with one engine.

We got to paddle into the harbor with 4 paddles as the spinnaker sheet had broken the plastic propeller on the Minn Kota as it was clamped to the storage bracket on the rail. (Personal Note: put outboard engine on inside of rail when flying the chute.) A passing skiff with a new friend AJ towed us in after the usual banter.  “Are you out for some exercise?  Reply: We have a four-stroke; do you only have a two?” Key West was incredible with all the race week action and carbon fiber racers with support boats you wouldn’t believe. One skipper brought his 160 foot schooner to stay on for his 65 foot racer.  The Italians and America’s cup crowds were there in force.  After investing in a new electric motor at West Marine a restaurant dinner and a few free t-shirts from Harken, we walked around looking at racers. We steamed back to the boat at high speed with our glorious new engine and hauled the dinghy with its very new looking electric on the Davits.

We found a Volvo mechanic who indicated that the boat would have to be hauled to check out the problem because the transmission and saildrive is essentially one unit.  In the evening a predicted weather front with 25 to 40 knots of wind came from the North East (our only exposed direction) and waves in the harbor built to about 4 feet but the anchor held. We found we were a bit close to a sloop but it was not the time to reset. The wind was supposed to change to the North East which would get us better protection where we were but would make it hard to proceed North on the Atlantic side with on one engine.  That made our decision easy; we haul in Key West and attend to the motor problems and repaint the bottom here—not in the Chesapeake as planned.

Well getting the crew and boat situated turned out to be exciting.  Cell phone reception was great and a call to the co captain, at home in Pennsylvania, organized a flight out for my brother in the morning. All we had to do was get him ashore in those waves which were now 4-5 feet. It rained most of the night and the wind howled in the rigging. We lowered the inflatable and Mike packed it with 2 paddles and empty Jerry cans for water and diesel under his gear for water space.  He tied up his gear like we were river rafting and I climbed on and discovered that the new electric motor’s battery which was on top of the unit had drained over night possibly due to rain.  I noticed the waves took us straight into the marina so I called for the charging adapter and two more paddles and cast off in the Zodiac which we had renamed “Patches” for my artful repairs. When I turned to look at my brother his eyes were like dinner platters and instead of saying goodbye to Ron and Jim he could only yell,”This isn’t a good idea.”  But we were very definitely committed, being now 20 yards to lee of the boat.  I didn’t realize that he had no white-water river experience in Zodiacs and that this would be fun.  Well, to spoil our fun Jean (John) in the French ketch down the line saw our adventure and decided to go out in the waves with his Zodiac with a 4 horsepower outboard.  He noted his wife was a bit horrified but said as long as you are going you might as well take the garbage.

Jean towed us in and Mike was so wired that he very quickly retrieved his gear from the inflatable.  One of our new friends at West Marine was watching us arrive and called him a cab to the airport. My brother was gone before I returned from paying for dinghy parking. (He called later that evening to say goodbye to us all and report that he was home safely in Toronto but reported he still felt a bit surreal.)  I spent the next 8 hours waiting for the battery to charge at the West Marine store and headed back against those waves with a full jerry can of water and one of diesel. The motor was so powerful I did not have any trouble getting upwind but the wind was so strong the waves were cresting and soon filled the zodiac to the point the water was going over the transom and the diesel can was floating.  When Ron and Jim saw the condition of the boat they decided not to risk going ashore and would keep fishing. “So much for –can we borrow the car, Dad?”
Unfortunately the charger for the battery got wet and we would be able only to use the paddles the next day-if we could have had a chance. The wind did change to the North East but was still 25 knots plus -- providing us with more shelter from the wind but blowing us offshore (rather than onshore to the marina for the dinghy). A lee shore on the island showed a mess of boats and dinghies whose lines failed overnight. Who knows what missed the island and went to the Yucatan.  So we elected to stay on board and fish some more the next day. We watched the fleets go out to race but racing was abandoned and they came back in with quite a bit of breakage for their efforts.  A quiet day was spent fishing (well it was still blowing 25+)as we arranged our haul out at Robbie’s on Stock Island and thought about how to get the rest of the crew back to  Port Charlotte.

The next day we hauled the anchor after breakfast and went out with the early racers on the Atlantic side. After we turned the corner, it was pretty well upwind so we motored all the way on two motors, since the port engine was stuck in forward anyway. We went into the wrong harbor on Stock Island and managed to nudge up on a sand bar before backing off and getting into Safe Harbor correctly. Soon, Dragon Fly was lifted on straps to blocks on the hard for her new bottom and saildrive. I rented a car and we went into Key West for dinner. We stayed on the boat overnight and used showers on land that seemed to rock.

It was a bit surreal for us to drive home but we saw a few sites on the Keys and had a great pasta meal at Jim and Theresa’s before I picked up a flight home to Pennsylvania to prepare for the next step in the adventure north.  Ron stayed to see if he could catch a few fish.
More adventures followed on the sail from Key West to Stuart, FL and then Beaufort SC and then Severn River VA.  Maybe the next big trip will be across the pond.