The morning of August 5th, my father and I left the dock in Tyson’s Harbor off Dog Island. 8:30AM and we were rounding the wide shoals off the North end of the island, making our way out into the Gulf of Mexico. It was an overcast morning, with the swells still at a constant 2 feet. The sets were about 4 feet, and the period was short – being the Gulf.
After hoisting the mainsail for some stability, we got a ways off the island. I shimmied up to the bow and hanked on our working jib-sail. Raising that allowed us to drive the bow through the swell more comfortably. Like driving a car, one does not hold the steering wheel constantly straight, but allows the natural feel to take over. With the tiller in hand, at the helm you are able to manuevar the boat up and down the short period swells in a slight of hand motion. This can make the sail more comfortable – while not losing momentum of the vessel.
The swells decreased as the day went on. When in Carrabelle we used the internet to check GRIB files. Weather prediction is difficult. The more you live on a boat in the elements, the better you get at analyzing the reports. My father taught me that it is all about the Highs and the Lows, follow those. With that big Low dissipating off Carrabelle and moving Eastward, we were to do the same. So basically we were following that Low, obviously at a much slower rate, hoping for a break or a High pressure to show up.
Completely surrounded by water all day, the surface conditions just kept calming. By sunset, we had a steady breeze and the seas had lessened to about 1 foot and farther apart.
The sky was clear as we held a beam reach through the night. We took turns on the helm, holding the tiller for about 2 hours at a time. For some reason we never put on the auto-tiller, and just enjoyed sailing through the starlit night. You will never see as clear a night as you will on the open water. Countless shooting stars, the Milky Way, planets, satellites; all the while surrounded by open water. An unspoken trust is exchanged.
There is something about making an overnight passage that can not be explained to those who have not done so. It’s a deep connection. Quite priceless.
When the Sun rose on August 6 we were reaching for the West Coast of Florida. It was calm and hot. Our weather predictions were holding. At 10:30 we passed our first Marker (#10). 26 hours so far since we jumped off Dog Island. The water was slick. We were moving at about 3.5 knots as the winds were calming down. My father started fishing and the ballyhoo were running on the surface all around. Another surreal moment. Noticing their movements through the clear water as a predator would chase them about. The ballyhoo would pop the surface and run with their tail, completely walking on water. Some ran as far as 50 yards before making a hop and diving back below.
Our anchorage of choice was Anclote Key. Literally translating from the Spanish explorers as “grappling hook” or “anchor”. Another area on the Florida coast rich with history, due to its safe harbor characteristics. Some interesting reading here.
Following our charts towards Anclote Key, we used the depth sounder to find the contours of the bottom. Bleeping our way as close in to the lighthouse as we could, we managed to find an 8ft. hole surrounded by shoal, which helps minimize wake. Setting the hook at 15:30. It was 31 hours from Dog Island, 145 miles. Satisfied with our safe passage, my father and I cheers a celebratory shot of Tequila.
I spent the rest of the day cleaning the bilge pump, adding oil to the outboard, and making dinner. My father enjoyed fishing from the cockpit. It was not long before we both fell asleep hard, after pulling that over-nighter.
August 7th was a Friday, we slept in. Now normally, Claire and I play superstitious and do not make way on Friday. Having about 45 miles to go to Longboat Key, my father and I decided to keep moving. The weather was still nice.
There were two options to get down to the Longboat area. Either follow the Intracoastal: less sailing, more motoring, and about a dozen draw bridges. Or the other option: head out the inlet south of Anclote key and sail on about 35 miles, coming into Egmont Key, and only having to deal with one draw bridge. We chose the later option…
We pulled up anchor at 10:00, followed our path on the chartplotter back around the shoals, and into the marked channel leading out the inlet and into the Gulf of Mexico. Once out in the Gulf, conditions started to change. The wind picked up, so we hoisted the mainsail. As I was pondering whether or not to hoist the jib-sail, the breeze kept growing.
Now the rest of this story happened as fast as I am typing it.
With our options still open, we had to decide to either come back into the Intracoastal or stay out in the Gulf. Looking to the West we saw a wall of a front racing towards us. Looking back on this moment, I would have rather stayed out in the Gulf.
I let out the mainsail and gave the outboard more throttle. We decided to try and get back into the Intracoastal for more protection. With a few miles to go off the bow, we were making a run for it. Little did we know, the inlet we chose was the worst one to choose. The shiftiest of shoals and the marker buoys were poorly placed – named Hurricane Pass.
With a white-squall coming onto us hard, the winds were now over 25kts. I managed to weave Splendid Isolation past the first 2 markers, staying in about 6 feet of water. The last time I glanced at the chartplotter we were moving at 7.8 knots. Then it hit, white-out rain with gusting winds well over 40kts. A typical summer front, with a punch.
As soon as it was upon us, we slammed. A haulting boom. Then we leaned hard to port as I pulled in the mainsail and forced the tiller as hard as I could to bring the boat into deeper water. Boom! Boom… We were on a shoal. The keel slamming bottom as the waves kicked up in the wind. Rain so hard you could barely see from one end of the boat to the other. Still leaning hard on the port side, we were getting dragged and bumped across the shoal.
The outboard motor cut off as my dad was yanking down the mainsail and lashing it to the boom. Comida China hit the deck and made a run for the bow. I yelled “cat on deck!” and my dad scooped her up by her scruff. Calling out “throw her in the hole!” he dropped her in the companion way hatch and we slammed it shut. Not loosing a kitty on this one.
With quick decisions to be made and the beach only a couple hundred feet away, this was bad. We grabbed life jackets and put those on. My father dropped anchor and about 60 feet of chain. All this while the waves are slamming the hull as the keel bounces the bottom. The boat whip-lashing back and forth; wanting to get washed ashore in the waves.
Never having to hail for help on the radio, I knew that now was the time. Shaking hard with adrenaline I grabbed the VHF and got on channel 16. “Coast Guard! BoatUS! Coast Guard! BoatUS! This is Sailing Vessel Splendid Isolation”
BoatUS responded. I gave them our coordinates and the condition of our situation. With the front still on us, the swell was just slamming our poor boat into the bottom. My father at the bow, in the rain, holding onto the chain and fastening it to the forward cleet. BoatUS said they would be there in about 45 minutes. At the same time, my father received a phone call from a friend. Telling him “No joke, call the Coast Guard.” I was then on the phone with extremely calming men. They called us back every 15 minutes to check in, as we waited for BoatUS to arrive.
I decided to call Claire. She was still at her parent’s house in North Carolina. Quickly informing her of our grounding. To keep my mind occupied off the negatives of the situation, I got the rachet set out and tended to the outboard. The electric start was flickering and the pull start was jammed. I took that apart and put it back together, while hanging off the stern. Fired the Yamaha back up and left her running in a low neutral.
When the BoatUS showed up the storm had moved on. There we were leaned up on a shoal, still bouncing in the waves. They scouted out the surrounding waters, informing us that we were grounded in 2 feet of water. Our keel draws 4.5 feet. Throwing us a fat line, we untied the anchor and fastened the tow rope to the bow. They dragged us forward as my father and I pulled in the chain together and retreived our anchor. Another few minutes of dragging and we were back in the channel.
I gave the tow-boat my information, when they looked me up in the system it reported back that my membership was expired. Confused by this, I was quite sure we had renewed that before leaving Texas. The bill – $1,200.
Adrenaline still pumping, I thought back. Claire put the BoatUS membership in HER name this time! I immediately told BoatUS of this. They looked it up in the system, and ta-da! there we were. New bill – $0.
Saying farewell and thank you to the great guys of BoatUS, my father and I limped into the nearest marina. Getting a transcient slip at Marker One Marina at 12:00. A LOT can happen in an hour!
We were completely shook up. After assessing the damage and cleaning up, we needed food and alcohol. Walking into town with sea legs, we did just that.
There is no one else I would have wanted on board in this incident than my father. He has mastered keeping calm in high stress situations. With his quick mind and strength in action, he truly was the hero once again.
The best way to learn is from mistakes. A lot was learned from this experience.
As they say – “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”