The Great Dry Tortugas Adventure
In June of 2003, as twenty-four boats made it back from the Bahamas, the chatter amongst the fledgling Conchs was that next year’s cruise should be in the Keys. So be it – the people have spoken. We started planning this thing essentially after Christmas some time (I do not remember when exactly) and planned to meet on June 20th to kick it off. This is the story from my skewed perspective.
Somewhere the title “Commodore” got stuck in the mix. I was not actually elected, ordained or proclaimed, but did agree to head up the group one more year. It’s like in a Three Stooges movie where someone asks for a volunteer and Larry and Moe take two steps back leaving Curly out front. I’m Curly. But that’s OK because I like the challenge of planning and I like the people that have shown up so far. So this year’s bunch should be just fine.
For those who were not on the first Conch Cruiser trip to the Bahamas, you need some background. We had twenty-five boats in a strict formation leaving in the middle of the night following a person they have never met (until that day) and partnered with boat buddies they never met (until that day). Everything was structured to the max. It worked very well. My vision for this cruise was to have two legs, a short one (easy) and a longer, more difficult one (more longer and difficult). We would not have a formation; rather go sort of like a rally. During the first short leg from Key West to the Marquesas, the boats would naturally group themselves according to speed. The next leg to the Tortugas would be a more demanding, fast paced event.
This was the plan. I hoped we could pull it off. We had a good mix of returning Conch Cruisers and newbies. This is good for the group. I looked forward to seeing old friends and meeting new friends and convincing them I know what the heck I’m talking about. Hmmm, that may be a hard sell.
Because I felt there should be a thorough reconnaissance of the area, Kelly and I volunteered to go down one full week in advance. Tough duty. We weathered the blistering temperatures one-half mile off the north side of the island.
D-3 (That’s three days before we departed) – Wade showed up pulling Shooting Sun. That’s good. Wade Clodfelter (aka Superdad) had Zach and Kayla in tow also. We gave them the nickel tour of the island and did the Mallory Square sunset celebration, which I think is a lot of fun, even though I’ve seen it a couple of dozen times.
D-2 (That’s two days before we departed) – Sumbuddie 2 is in the marina. Where’s Jerry? I try him on his cellphone but cannot get him. I’m thinking, where’s all the boats? I thought that at least half of them would be here on the nineteenth. We met up with Steve and Betty Laufer launching that good-looking 26M. It was good to see old faces. (Not your face, Betty. I’m talking about Steve’s. Wait, it was good to see your face, Betty, but it was not an OLD face. I'll stop while I am behind).
D-1 (You know the drill by now) – Just when you need everything to come together, the dinghy motor goes on the fritz. I bring it to the mechanics at Sigbee Navy Marina and the highly motivated mechanic, Matt, attacks it like a bulldog on a pork chop. Two hours later, we are no closer to making the thing run. The marina manager, who has several sailboats walks out and checks us out. He says, “Oh yeah, just put a wire tie here.” Zippp! The motor works like a champ.
I’m getting in a stressed out mood because I specifically wanted to be at the marina most of the day to help out in whatever way I could. FINALLY about lunch we were able to provision. We run into Jason and Eric (Synchronicity) at Publix. More familiar Macs on the island.
Early in the afternoon we moved our boat from the Sigbee anchorage to the Wisteria anchorage. A major problem soon surfaces – The lock and chain that I secure the motor to the dinghy transom had shifted in such a manner that I could not remove the motor from the dinghy! Seriously. I needed to strap the dinghy to the foredeck and put the motor on the stern rail motor mount. No dice. I decided to get a pair of bolt cutters when we taxied in.
I call the water taxi to take us in, which they do. I remind them that we would be calling them at 0645 (the second notice) the next day for a skipper’s meeting. No problem. Right.
Getting close to sevenish, we go back to the marina to see what’s happening there. Good Lord, look at all the Macs! They were anchored all up and down the seawall. It was a sight reminiscent of No Name Harbor last year, but they were a long way from where they needed to anchor. Jack mentioned staying at the seawall for the night, but it would cost him $65 or so. He thought moving to the anchorage was dandy.
I was beginning to get worried because sailing around Key West at night is not conducive to the health and welfare of skippers or boats. A lot of things go bump in the night and they are mostly below the waterline. I explain to Chip H., “You go out that channel. It doglegs to the right. Then you head west. Don’t crowd the shoreline. Go to the Key West channel. It’s clearly marked. Good Luck.” Or maybe I didn’t say good luck but that’s surely what I was thinking.
Off we went for a night’s sleep that wasn’t really all that good. I didn’t trust the bottom that much and it was very tidal. It’s amazing that I didn’t sleep so well since I was in an air-conditioned room at the Navy hotel. One more night of AC was necessary since we had been without for a week. I worried that the following morning the Wild Hair would be gone, making it’s way like a ghost ship to ports unknown.
The flotilla-pequeño with Chip H. and the crew came in during the night, meaning we all were probably going to be there tomorrow morning ready to go. That is if several didn’t drag anchors and drift out to the Gulf Stream. Well that’s not so bad either, since they would have a better than even chance of ending up in the Bahamas.
D Day – June 21st, 2004 – Dia de los Caracollas (Is this right, Juan? Day of the Conchs?) We awoke early and went to Waffle House. With a gullet full of scattered, smothered and covered hashbrowns, we went to Home Depot to purchase a master key for the aforementioned lock issue. At six-forty five, we were waiting to greet the Conch Skippers on the dock right next to the Turtle Museum near Turtle Kraals. The Yankee Cat docks here, and the crew was scrambling around to get ready for their trip. An old sea salt-type with a Yankee Cat shirt came by. We’ll call him Barnacle Bill, though I can’t be sure that really isn’t his name. I asked him if we were in the way and if we could have our meeting here. I half expected him to say, “Arrrrrrgghhh, Matey!” and walk off. But he didn’t. He said it was not a problem. We would run into Barnacle Bill again at the Tortugas.
The Conch Cruisers started drifting in and we all shook hands, chatted and waited to get the full group. Trying to get this group together is much like trying to herd baby chicks through a maze. After fetching coffee and Conch Cruisers, we all somehow manage to get in a circle. I was hoping that the Skipper’s packet I sent out was thorough enough, but there were many questions that I should have had answers to in the packet. The group seemed thoughtful and asked intelligent questions. I’m a little worried about this rally-style move to the Marquesas, but how much trouble could we get in?
Here was the situation as I saw it – You have a six mile stretch between the islands and the reef. This is the Straits of Florida. The seas would be rather calm today and the winds from a favorable direction. While we had winds averaging 10-15 knots the previous week, the wind would probably be between 5-10 knots today. We had essentially all day to move twenty-three miles and it was going to be a beautiful day. My plan was for everyone to sail just as fast as they could to see whose boat could keep up with whom. That would help determine who the buddy boats became the next day.
What a day! What a sail! We led the Conch Cruisers out through the Key West channel shortly after nine o’clock and headed for the reef. I figured we needed to go out about three miles to get enough angle on the wind to clear the western keys that were visible. We turned into the wind and hoisted the 150 and sailed close hauled, not really knowing how the boat would respond to being loaded down heavier than the Edmund Fitzgerald.
We were cooking along just fine until the wind dropped off a little bit. Then the unthinkable happened – boats started passing us. I thought, “Oh Crap!” OK, that’s not what I was thinking but it was along those lines. We turned into the wind and took down the genny. Kelly steered while I rigged up all the lines to hoist our new gennaker, “The Whomper.” It came right out of the snuffer looking like a million bucks. We got a few congratulatory remarks on the VHF and I set out to catch Next Boat and Julie Ann.
We quickly discovered that the wind was too far forward to maximize the sail. We were practically close hauled and were having major luffing issues. When the wind would shift abeam, we would take off like a rocket (a slow, loaded down rocket). We wanted to stay on a port tack and faced two options – 1. Sail fast on a broad reach and be forced to tack so you don’t run into the islands or 2. Sail close hauled and fight the luffing as much as possible.
I really enjoyed the day and learned a lot about sailing with asymmetrical spinnakers. We would catch up to Chip and John’s boat, sometimes even passing them. We would fall behind and try to figure out how to get just one little bit extra of performance out of the boat. What a day!
We passed a luxurious cottage on a key that looked like Robin Leach needed to be standing on the dock calling to us. Once, in shallow waters, Kelly spied a manatee between Next Boat and us. It truly was an awesome sailing day.
As hard as Chip, John and I were trying to sail fast, Bert and Kathy Ward just walked away from us on Mariah Skye. That boat was lightning. Kelly and I decided that they only brought rice cakes and left the fuel and water. The other Conchs were strewn out up and down the line, but not too far apart.
I looked in the western horizon and saw a blocky looking thing coming toward us. Soon, the Fast Cat came zipping by. That boat was smoking! Not too far behind was the Yankee Cat. It is pretty cool to see those two boats in high gear. We joked on the VHF about tying a line to it tomorrow morning and hitching a ride.
We pulled into the anchorage on the western side of the Marquesas early. I set two anchors, afraid of the strong tidal current. Most of the Conch Cruisers were much closer to the island than I would prefer, and I wasn’t sure why. I like to get out a ways. It reduces the bug factor, which was not an issue. It was relatively shallow out where we were and I just like the elbow room. We could see the line of boats anchored up and went to bed with thirteen boats comfortably on the hook. We slept in the cockpit, enjoying a beautiful night.
Off to the north, lightning flashed in the Gulf as it does almost every June night. I had already briefed the group about this. Typically before a squall hits, the winds kick up and the temperature drops noticeably. After midnight some time, we woke up to the boat bucking around in the increasing wind. Then the telltale temperature drop happened. Kelly and I had been there, done that before and we quickly scampered around, getting everything secure.
The squall hit with a fury, confusing the tidal waters and throwing our boats around. We turned on the VHF to 71 to monitor what was going on with the other boats. Somehow, the damn boat turned so that the stern was facing the wind! The waves crashed into the transom, causing the Wild Hair to shudder with the impact. This was a new experience and it was not at all fun or exciting.
Chip Hindes came on the radio and said a boat had just passed him in the dark. Spotlights were illuminating the shore as the wind bucked the group. I saw someone had spotlighted two boats on the beach. This sucks!
After the maelstrom had run its course, we were missing Jason and Eric in Synchronicity. I announced a Pan Pan message on VHF 16, thinking they had washed away, sunk or were swallowed up by the sea. After a beautifully succinct message to mariners, they answered on VHF 16. They had drug a ways, but they were OK.
We had a roll call and finally established we had eleven boats anchored and three on the beach. Everyone was safe. This was a relief, but I dreaded waking up the next morning to what we might see. I just knew we had our work cut out for us.
Back to bed and this time we slept a good five hours. Another day, another squall. One more storm to add to the vitae.
Day Three – Morning greeted us with calm seas and a beautiful sunrise. Sure enough, there are the three boats on the beach. I could not see clearly just how far up they were, but I was hoping for a break for these boats. The problem was that we could not get other boats up close to them because it was so shallow. We could have pieced together lines to form a 300’ tow line, but this was Plan C and I did not even know what Plan B was.
Slowly, each of the three boats kedged, pulled or otherwise coaxed their way off into deeper waters. We left the anchorage a couple of hours late, which put a kink into our travel plans. We had thirty-nine nautical miles to the Tortugas to make and not enough cushion time to do it. We had to get cooking.
Fortunately, the winds were in our favor, strong and steady out of the south. We tried to stay up with the 150 genny, but we quickly decided to break out The Whomper. Once we got the gennaker hoisted, it was good night, Irene to everyone. We set a blistering pace and passed even the 26S boats. We even passed Mariah Skye, which is saying something. I was in sailboat heaven.
All good things must come to an end, and that is just what the wind did. We dowsed the sails and cranked up the motor and headed west at six knots. It was very important to set a good pace so we make landfall in the daylight. I had never been to the Tortugas, and I was a little nervous about finding my way in. I had good reason to be nervous, it turns out.
We were cruising along in a line across the Quicksands, which is a pretty deceptive area, when we saw the Fast Cat and the Yankee Cat come from the east, headed to the Tortugas. I believe Big Daddy Don Garlits was at the helm. They were flying once again. And just think, Barnacle Bill gets to do this every day.
There were several aids to navigation out on the Quicksands that were visible for miles. I checked our position off our chart (yes, that’s PAPER chart) shooting back azimuths from the towers and doing the triangulation on the map. Actually I swagged the back azimuths and eyeballed the triangulation, but the result was the same – right on course.
I continued a fast pace that I knew would push the boats to meet, worried about coming up on Rebecca Shoals. I have discussed this place with several Key West Old-timers and Johnny-come-latelys. They all agree that Rebecca Shoals to the Tortugas could get real nasty. Well, Kelly and I have done real nasty water and weather before and we didn’t want more of it, if it could be avoided. We passed the Rebecca Shoals tower a couple of miles to the north. I had been advised, “Don’t get too close!!!” Everything was relatively smooth with only a little swell to deal with. The depth finder reeled off higher numbers but the promised rough waters never happened.
We hunkered down for the twenty mile haul from Rebecca Shoals to the Tortugas. Several hours later, the horizon exposed a blip that I guessed most accurately to be the Tortugas. The problem was that you can’t just drive right up to Fort Jefferson and throw out the anchor. You have to approach from the east, turn north and make a three-quarter circumnavigation of the Fort. To complicate matters, there are shallow waters, coral and rocks under water that could be a problem.
The skipper of the Battleship Iowa could not make it through without hitting a rock (hence, Iowa Rock). Could thirteen Macs make it intact? Would I lead them into a minefield of coral? We picked our way around the island and channel markers, some of which only bear a slight resemblance to anything on a chart. Pulling into the anchorage was a beautiful sight indeed.
We were greeted to the refreshing smell of dead fish as we passed a fishing boat at anchor. We moved way, WAY away from him. In keeping with my elbow room philosophy of anchoring, we moved far up in the shallows to anchor. Thank goodness I had the good sense to anchor away from the island. There must have been ten thousand squawking birds there who reveled in crapping on anything fiberglass.
The anchor went down and I dived to check on it. Big Daddy Barracuda watched me set he anchors, but he had a peaceful disposition. I hand-set the primary and secondary and swam back to the boat. The boat was not near set up, but I told Kelly, “Come on – Let’s go swim over to Chip and Janice’s boat!” We were about half way across the seventy-five yards of distance when a guy from another boat says, “Hey watch out! There was a big Bull Shark swimming here a little while ago!”
Oops! There it is – the “S” word! Back to the boat we go, my mind stuck on the horns of a dilemma. If you stay out here, the shark may come and devour you. If you swim, you make splashing noises that probably attract sharks even more. The faster you swim, the noisier you are, the more you attract sharks. Thankfully we were back in the boat before I had a chance to cogitate on it any more.
By now, all the other Conch Cruisers were pulling in and finding their little piece of this anchorage. We got the dinghy in the water and drove around, talking to the other Conch Cruisers. This scruffy-looking guy pulled up on his dinghy and said, “Hey man, you got any beer or pop to trade for fish?” I thought he said, “Hey man you got any beer or POT to trade for fish?” A little forward, aren’t we, Jethro?
He then explained that they had a teenager on board their fishing boat, the captain’s son, and he needed POP. Cokes, sprite, whatever. Ah, yes! I had read about this! We raced back to our boat and got our cooler, three beers and three cokes. For this we traded for a cooler full of ice, grouper fillets and yellowtail snapper fillets. We took the fish right back to the boat and grilled them. Outstanding!! Especially the yellowtail! Life is good.
After the gluttony ended, we motored over to get Chip and Janice from Next Boat and headed in for a recon. As luck would have it, we met up with this tall drink of water named Chuck, who works for the National Park Service. He and his wife live at Fort Jefferson and had just returned from sailing. I want to be Chuck.
He probably has the only sailboat in the world that has his home port painted on the boat, Dry Tortugas. We got to talking and before you know it, he had volunteered to take us on a special behind-the-scenes tour. Janice Hindes and my wife, Kelly, had really been the ones to get him to do it. I give her all the credit. It certainly was not the charms of the Chip and Chip sideshow.
We took a stroll around the Fort and agreed that any OSHA inspector would grab his heart and fall on the ground if he ever landed on the island. No safety rails adorned any of the thousand places you could fall to your death. No problem, just be careful.
We made our way back to the dinghy and took a tour of the anchorage, stopping at each Conch Cruiser boat to announce our special tour the next day. It was a great feeling or accomplishment seeing all the boats there safely anchored and everyone in a festive mood. We slept very well that night.
Day Four – We woke to the exciting revelation that we had not dragged into the mass of boats behind us. So far, so good. We met at the fountain in side the fort to take the behind-the-scenes tour. Most everyone showed up and got their money’s worth, especially since it was free. Chuck, the intrepid NPS employee, took us to the areas of the fort that were generally off limits to the public. It was pretty cool seeing their tiny self-contained city. They had their own reverse osmosis watermakers, rain-collecting cisterns, sewage processing plant, generators, aid station with a golf cart ambulance, community and fitness room, wood shop and an assortment of other resources. They had flushing toilets – real flushing toilets! You just have to go to the Tortugas to appreciate this.
Chuck was gracious enough to show us their apartment. We were all blown away by the view from his deck. I want Chuck’s job when he retires. We all hope Chuck will become a Conch Cruiser one day. Its days like this that makes cruising so enjoyable. There are so many good people out there just waiting to meet you and share their experiences with you. The tour of the Fort was a highlight of the trip.
As we got in the dinghy to motor back to the Wild Hair, we offered to tow Jason and Eric’s Walker Bay dinghy, which was a little unstable. We motored past this enormous white sloop that had to be in the seventy foot range. I hailed the guy sitting in the cockpit and complimented his boat. Much to our surprise, he invited us aboard to see it. Oh yeah! Life is good! We tied off both dinghies and climbed the ladder to board the vessel. I don’t remember the guy’s name, but he is a lawyer out of Texas. He was invited by two brothers to help deliver the boat to the Eastern Seaboard. The brothers had built the boat for some rich guy and they were on the shakedown cruise. The Texas lawyer was holding down the fort while the brothers and their guests were out snorkeling. The boat was nothing short of magnificent. The woodwork gleamed. Everything was perfect and new. The air conditioning down below would get your feet cold if you were not careful.
We sat around the boat and drank rum and cokes for about an hour. The brothers, along with a couple of other people arrived back at the boat and gave us a frosty greeting. Well, you don’t have to hit me over the head with a stick to get the message across. We said our goodbyes and motored off with Eric in tow. After delivering the boys to Synchronicity, we moved on back to the Wild Hair and chilled out the rest of the day.
When the sun began to dip in the western sky, we had a social at the fort. This was really the first time we had to relax and chat with each other. It was nice. We had munchies and sat around the picnic tables. Life is good.
Kelly and I gave Jack Vose and his son a ride back to their boat. We were motoring by another Conch Cruiser boat when they called out that, “Jason and Eric are in the water! They called out for help!” Well this sucks! We dropped Kelly off by the Wild Hair and proceeded to search the inky waters for the lads. I felt like I had a gallon of acid in my stomach as several dinghys crisscrossed around the anchorage. Search lights were broken out in search of the boys. Of course, I was thinking the worst.
Fortunately, about ten minutes later, someone hollered that they were on their boat and in good shape. Whew! Close call! We called everyone on the VHF and relayed the news. The dinghys made their way back to their respective boats. About thirty minutes later, the park rangers were searching the waters. We hailed them and explained that everything was fine. They took off in search of Synchronicity, but I do not know if they ever found them. Sleep was easy that night.
Day Five – We woke up and prepared to sail over to a nearby key called Loggerhead Key. It appeared to be about six or seven miles west of Garden Key. It has a prominent lighthouse on it that is functional. We motored out of the anchorage and were greeted with a little more swell than I would have liked.
We decided to motor the way over and not fight both the sails and the swell. I was very concerned about rounding the southern tip of the island, as the waters were very shallow. Out there, you might just be greeted with a coral head rather than grounding on sand or mud. The pucker factor was high.
I could see most of the other Conch Cruisers moving to the submerged ship and anchoring over it to snorkel. I did not like the looks of the choppy water and elected to go for the more docile waters of the lee side of Loggerhead Key. We stood off about one half mile and rounded the southern tip, ever leery. We did slip through some coral patches about six feet deep, but we made it. The tail of the island formed a “J”, offering a nice, protected anchorage near the beach. We anchored off about fifty yards. If I have the choice of anchoring or beaching, I will normally anchor. I’m weird that way.
We jumped in the dinghy and took off to the beach. Good grief! You could hardly walk in the sand. You just sank down to your calf. Back to the dinghy! We motored along the beach in our trusty inflatable, admiring the turtle crawls, the many sticks that marked the turtle nests and the flora of Loggerhead Key.
We came to a building that was on an embankment over the beach. This looked like as good as a place as any to stop. We dragged the dinghy carefully up on the beach. You had to be careful because the sand was actually mostly ground up shells and some pieces were pretty sharp.
We walked up to the lighthouse and house that were immediately behind the abandoned building we had parked our dinghy at. We were knocking on the door of the house when a lady came up, looking real suspicious at me. I declared my peaceful intentions and we all hit it off immediately. This was, until, I asked her if I could wash my feet off with her garden hose. She looked at me like I had one eye in the center of my head. Arrrgghh! Of course not! Water is too precious.
She and her husband were park volunteers who stayed on Loggerhead Key for a month at a time. We chatted about the island and its history. It was at one time covered with Australian Pines and looked pretty good. Some genius in Washington decided to cut them all down. We will just call him Assistant Director Dumbass. Now there is not much shade on the island.
Just a few days before we arrived, twenty-nine Cubans were dropped off on Loggerhead Key by smugglers. They had basically nothing. The couple gave them clothes, water (not to wash their feet off, though), food, etc. Welcome to America where the streets are paved with gold and there’s no pine trees on Loggerhead Key!
We left our hosts and walked down the beach a hundred yards or so and snorkeled Little Africa reef. It is hard to describe this experience, but here it goes: Imagine you swim out from the beach. For the first fifty yards, you see sand, rocks and grass – all in black and white. Then the whole world goes technocolor ballistic with corals, fans, fish, anemones and many, many other things. There are miniature coral canyons, nooks and crannies to peer into. Absolutely fabulous!
As I was chatting with Kelly, she pointed out and said, “Is that our dinghy out there?” Oh crap! Our dinghy had drifted off the beach. How did that happen? We both had a boat seat cushion we were floating on, so I took off on the cushion. I swam and swam and swam. I would close in to about forty yards and the wind would push it out farther. I must have swum four or five hundred yards but I could not catch it. I was getting seriously tired, but I knew I had my cushion and a bunch of Conch Cruiser in the area. How bad could it be?
A power boater who was at anchor saw my plight and came to my rescue. He brought our dinghy to me. I could barely get in, I as so tired. Lesson learned. Do not just drag your dinghy on the beach; tie it off!
This event had creeped us out so badly we were ready to leave. We made our way back to the Wild Hair, thankful everything had worked out so well. Most of the other Conch Cruisers were arriving from the wreck to explore Loggerhead Key. We left and gave the island a healthy distance, but still managed to bump our keel on ground once or twice. Thank goodness for a swing keel.
We made our way back to Garden Key in ugly seas, crashing into the swells. We anchored and got ready for the evening skipper’s meeting. The return trip always concerns me more than the trip out. I hoped we would have all the bases covered.
The meeting went well. We had our post-skipper’s meeting event – the Ghost Walk! Janice Hindes and my wife, Kelly had promised Zach and Kayla Clodfelter a ghost walk around the moat. It is funny, but all the Conch Cruisers tagged along. We watched a beautiful sunset as a shark patrolled the shallow waters of the key. His dorsal fin cut a swath in the calm water, giving all of us a thrill.
The ghost walk was a rousing success and we made our way back to the Wild Hair for a night’s sleep in preparation for the trip home.
Day Six – Morning came early and we all motored out in formation, eager to get a jump on the day. We exited the channel on the south end of the fort, worked our way around the west end, continued to circle to the north end and bear slightly southward near Iowa Rock. The water was pretty rough going. The boat was slamming into wave after wave. I knew we were going to pay for all that smooth sailing we had coming out.
About an hour into the rodeo, the radio began squawking about the roughness of the waters, another day in the anchorage, etc. What comforting words could I issue? “Don’t worry. We only have another fifteen miles of this!” Oh yeah! That’s the trick! They should all breathe a sigh of relief now. We continued to bang through the waves. There’s no easy way to do it. It was a rough morning on the water, but we kept our easterly bearing.
One of the coolest things I saw was Bert and Kathy Ward’s 26S busting through the waves. It looked like a SAS Commando boat hurtling at 30 knots! I could actually see their keel a few times. I wish I had video.
I heard someone tell Julie Ann his anchor was loose and banging up his boat. He managed to get it fixed without having to stop. That was good. Some others saw sea turtles. Generally, everything was going well. I talked to the Fast Cat as it came cruising by at twenty-seven knots. It looked like it had contrails behind it – zooooom!
We made Rebecca Shoals and the rough water let up a lot. Some wanted to sail, but the winds were simply not favorable. By the end of the day, all eleven cruisers were anchored on the west side of the Marquesas. This time we were a little farther out and in sand. Sand is important when you just saw three boats beached here a few days ago. Sand holds well, especially with a danforth.
Sleep did not come all that well because I was nervous about storms. We did see the ubiquitous squalls in the gulf, but we were generally peaceful.
Day Seven – I arose early and peeked out the Wild Hair. There was a lot of activity on other boats. I saw Chip Hindes out on deck, puttering around. At the designated time, I pulled anchor. The Conch Cruisers were lining up to leave, when it occurred to someone that everyone was not up! Oh crap! It was really my fault, because the wakeup time I had put out at the last skipper’s meeting was one hour earlier than in the skipper’s packet. Lesson learned.
We all headed for deeper waters, closer to the reef. The wind was pretty much on our nose, so sailing was not much of an option. I though we had a gravy run to Key West when near disaster happened.
The seas were two to four feet,
depending on where we were inside the reef. We, along with everyone else, had
spend the previous day banging through waves leaving the Tortugas. In
retrospect, I should have checked the rigging before we left the Marquesas, but
We had motored down and were passing Boca Grande Key, approximately two miles out. We were banging along, like the previous day, again into the wind. All of the sudden, there was a loud "BANG" and lines and stays were everywhere. I killed the engine and tried to take stock of what had happened and how for Kelly and I not to get dragged in the water.
The mast was leaning on the poptop, and swaying back and forth. I ran up to the foredeck while Kelly attempted to hold stays and shrouds, keeping the mast from going overboard. I told her, "Let it go if it goes overboard."
Bert Ward was the first to reach the boat. He jumped off his boat and swam to ours. Wade Clodfelter was close behind. Our halyard for the gennaker runs back to the cockpit. I told Kelly to uncleat it. I pulled the halyard line through and clipped the shackle around the halyard. I pulled the halyard, using the shackle as sort of a slip knot.
By this time, Bert was moving to the bow. He took the line and ran it around the bow cleat. Wade climbed up and we were able to raise the mast. Bert cleated it off. This solved the problem of the mast going over. I also used the jib halyard to tie off to the bow pulpit.
I tied the forestay off with a small line I had.
We slowly motored into the lee of Woman Key and tightened up all the jury rigged lines. Bert and Kathy followed us in. Thanks.
What happened? The turnbuckle had backed its way out. We do not have a turnbuckle (yet) that has the cotter pins. Our turnbuckle has a nut that snugs up to the barrel and keeps it in place. Right.
All that banging around caused it to back out. As I said, I should have checked it at the Marquesas. I can assure you that we will have a turnbuckle in place that has cotter pins. I will then replace the pins with rings.
Bert and Wade were heroes. That's the kind of people you meet in this sailing group.
We limped on into Key West and anchored out near Sigbee Naval Annex. We were very thankful to make it back in one piece. We decided that we would not be going to Sand Key the next day. We needed to try to get the boat fixed. We met everyone that night at Turtle Kraals and had a first-rate dinner. Everyone seemed to be in a festive mood. We were all back in one piece, even though a few boats were banged up a little. We felt like celebrating.
We moved down to the Schooner Wharf bar and enjoyed some live music and a few margaritas. The night ended well.
Day Eight – We took stock of the boat and headed to West Marine and Boater’s World. We found a turnbuckle that worked and made the repairs. We didn’t make the Sand Key trip, but that was fine. We stayed landlocked. That evening, we went to an outstanding restaurant called “Hickory House.” It is a quiet little place next to Oceanside Marina on Stock Island. They had a most excellent jazz band playing and the food was primo. I declared the day a success slept with an untroubled conscience.
Day Nine – The highlight (or lowlight) of the day came at Mallory Square. We went with a bunch of Conchs to see the ceremonial dousing of the sun. As Chip Hindes and I stood looking across the channel at his boat, he says, “Hey! I think my boat is dragging!” Ever the optimist, I say, “Nope, I don’t think so. See! It is just sailing on the anchor line.” We watched it for a while, and decided that it was indeed not dragging.
We went out for Cuban food at Chicaronnes. What another excellent time we had! I should be a tour guide. Follow Chip and eat until you drop. Some of the Conchs had pulled out on this day.
We found out later that Chip and Janice Hindes’ boat, Nextboat, did indeed drag at anchor. In fact, they found a big hole punched in their starboard side in the head. Oh well, it could have been worse.
Day Ten – We went to Oceanside to bid the Conchs farewell. We were already trying to determine where we were going next year. Bimini seemed to be the favorite. Kelly and I retired to the naval base for some R&R. We had friends coming down and needed to rest up for that.
Another excellent Conch Cruiser adventure ended. In retrospect, I must admit that I did not expect the Tortugas trip to meet up the previous year’s Bimini trip. How wrong I was. This was one that every one of us will be talking about for a long time.
E-mail the Author
Click here to go back to the Wild Hair Home Page