We’re back from our non-attempt to run the Everglades Challenge. As some of you know, we decided not to go Saturday morning. Tampa Bay was a little rough, with 20 knot winds on the nose, but the real deal-killer was in the forecast. The front that spawned so many tornadoes and killed so many people was due to pass through the area Sunday, with winds of 30 to 40 knots predicted. Later in the week another front was forecast with winds of similar violence.
When Nancy and I woke up at 4:30 Saturday morning, the first thing we did was to check the NOAA forecast. The second thing we did was to look at each other and say, “Not for us!” We still went over to the beach to see the launch. It was, as always, extremely interesting. Some folks had trouble getting off the beach, some, like us, didn’t go at all, and others returned to the beach after making the attempt.
After a couple of hours, a few of the other on-lookers helped me get Slider back into the water, and I sailed her around to the boat ramp on the far side of Mullet Key. Nancy drove the car and trailer back to the ramp, and before long we were in full retreat.
(The excellent photographs used in this post were taken by fellow Boat Design forum member Hoyt, and used by his kind permission. I think I was too involved in the rush to get ready to even think about taking pictures, though I had a Pelican case full of cameras.)
My difficulties actually began Friday afternoon, when I decided to sail Slider around to the launch beach, rather than try to manhandle her off her trailer at the beach. I estimated that Slider, with all the supplies for the trip, weighed about 800 pounds, but after seeing her in the water, I revised that estimate upwards a bit. In any case, even though there were many willing hands to help, I thought it wiser to move her by water. All went well until I was beating down the western shore of Mullet Key. I paused to raise the jib, and soon after, the head tore out of the mainsail. In retrospect, I think I might have shackled the headring on cocked, which put an unfair strain on it, but it was not a well-reinforced ring, being simply pressed on. In any case, with the main billowing around like a trash bag on a barbed wire fence, progress to windward became very slow. The sprit was at least holding the sail up, so I was getting a little drive, or at least some balance out of it. I left it up, hoping a big gust wouldn’t rip the other grommets out of the sail.
At this point, my biggest concerns were making the beach in time for the mandatory meetings and letting Nancy know that I hadn’t drowned. Fortunately a couple of fellow competitors luffed up as they passed me to see what was wrong, and to offer help if needed. I thought I’d be okay, but I was grateful for the opportunity to pass the word that I’d be late. They didn’t know Nancy, so couldn’t tell her directly, but they let Chief (the event’s head honcho) know, so Nancy could check with him if she got worried. She was indeed a bit worried, as the afternoon passed with no sign of me. It took me several hours to sail a distance I should have sailed in about 45 minutes, but eventually I made it around the corner. The winds picked up until they were pretty sporty, and I finally dropped the main. I reached down the south side of Mullet key on jib alone, going fast.
Once there, a half-dozen kind folks helped us haul Slider up the beach and turn her to face the bay. Here I learned that my launching scheme was not the best. Despite the warnings of several experienced competitors that my PVC pipe rollers might be inadequate, I persisted in carrying them. I used to haul our old Wharram cat up on beaches to paint the bottom, using a similar scheme. However the sand here along the NW Florida coast is much more compact and solid than the sand on Mullet Key, which is loose and piles up in front of the rollers. If we’d launched, we’d have had a tough time getting her to the water by ourselves.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon attending meetings, getting our gear inspected, and repairing the torn sail. I put a couple of webbing straps through the ring and stitched the straps to the sail. This wasn’t the prettiest repair, since the only webbing I had was bright blue, but the repair seems solid, and I have no doubt it’s stronger than the original pressed ring.
But the time we were done, it was almost dark, and we were exhausted. We decided to forgo our camping spot at Fort DeSoto, and found a motel near the Tampa-St. Pete causeway. This gave us access to the internet and the Weather Channel, and these information sources played a large role in our decision to stay on the beach Saturday morning.
I have to say that though our decision was difficult, we do not regret it. As the following week passed, and we read about the mayhem among the competitors– the boat breakages, the capsizes, the injuries– we were increasingly grateful we’d chickened out. We were there for fun, and that was all we were there for. We had literally no chance of winning our multihull division, of course, since Slider is built for comfort, not speed, so we were there only for the experience of sailing through those south Florida waters.
There’s been some speculation that the reason I chose not to go was that my wife was my crew. That’s not exactly the case. Nancy, in many ways, is braver than I am, but she saw the situation as dangerous too.
All that said, as the captain, I had the responsibility to do the smart thing. I hope I would have made the same call no matter who my crew was. It’s okay to risk one’s own life, but it’s more of a moral problem to risk the life of a less-experienced person who is depending on your good judgment. Of course, honestly compels me to add that if I’d drowned their mother, my children would never have forgiven me. We talked to each of them Friday night, and told them we were considering dropping out, but that I hated to think what folks might say about me. Each kid, in his or her own way, said the same thing. “Well Dad, you’ve never cared what people said about you before, so why would you start worrying about that now?”
Okay, but the Watertribe folks are a special group. I have such great respect for them, and for what they do that their opinion does matter to me. However, I heard not a single derisive word after I let Chief and the race manager Paddledancer know that we were bailing out. Everyone I’ve talked to since has been supportive of our decision, including some of the iron men who sailed deep into and/or completed the race. The people at the event were wonderful to us. I got many offers of help when I needed to repair the sail, for example, and we were shown a number of other kindnesses. I can honestly say that I’ve never met a better bunch of people.
The ride back to the ramp was a small adventure on its own. A couple of hours after the start, I put up a reefed main, and then another half-dozen onlookers got me down into the water, where I lay to the anchor for a bit while getting lines organized and so forth. The surf was fairly bouncy, which made everything a little more difficult. When I finally hauled out to the anchor and set off, I had great difficulty in getting my rudders down, for some reason, and I flailed around just off the beach for some minutes until I could get them set. Once the rudders were down, we reached off down the beach, parallel to the wave trains, going right along. This was a tad on the wild side. Perhaps it was the overloading, due to carrying enough food and water for a week, plus the required gear, plus my crop of gadgets, but stuff happened that has never happened to Slider before. I actually had waves break across both bows. I was in a panic about my car keys, which I had foolishly dropped onto the deck in the corner between the aft cockpit coaming and the cabin shell. I was really worried that the solid water hitting the front of the cabin might make it aft and soak my brand-new key fob, but when I reached the ramp, the keys were bone-dry, like everything else in the cabin. Despite the breaking waves, we took no water aboard, even in the open cockpit.
Once I turned the corner and started running downwind, things got to be a lot more fun. We set a new speed record surfing on the big waves coming in from the ship channel– 11.2 knots, pretty fast for an overloaded undercanvassed 16 foot cruising cat.
I made a navigational error and turned in toward the passage to the boat ramps before I should have. When I realized my error, I was already sailing across a shallow flat, and the waves kept bumping us on the bottom. Fortunately we never stuck, which could have been dangerous in those conditions, and there was no harm done, another great thing about shoal-draft cats. I did rub a little glass off the forward corner of one rudder, but that was easily repaired. I lost some bottom paint going up and down the beach, but that had to be expected.
All in all, we learned some valuable lessons, and it’s a good thing we learned them, because they were expensive lessons. We’re cruisers, and it’s a basic tenet of successful cruising that you do not deliberately go out into bad weather. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to be late for work, or your flight home, or your wedding– prudent cruisers wait for a suitable weather window. Period. This attitude is at odds with the attitudes that racers must cultivate. A racer has to go when the gun goes off, no matter the conditions or the forecast.
Maybe racing isn’t for us. That’s a sad thing to realize, for me, because I’m a fairly competitive person. But the sea scares me, as it should. Whenever I’m tempted to do something risky, I think of the old quote attributed to the Aran islanders of west Ireland:
A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drowned…for he will go out on a day he shouldn’t. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we only be drownded now and again.
John Millington Synge
The Aran Islands.