While planning our moves in Sarasota, Em and I decided we should take the boat up the river system to Kentucky Lake/Lake Barkley for the remainder of hurricane season. During that time, I’ll pick up some work to replenish the cruising kitty and we can make future plans. After 2 months of amazing adventures with my best friend/wife, Emily departed last week to visit her sister in Annapolis. Though, I wish I could have gone, it was up to me to sail the boat north to the panhandle. After making final arrangements in Sarasota, and an awesome mexican dinner send off with my grandparents, I departed mooring ball 2 at Marina Jack to make way towards Palmetto.
A few hours later I anchored outside Snead Island Boat Works. My friends Deb and Tim aboard S/V Kintala are staying and working at the marina until winter and I wanted to visit them before heading north. I didn’t stay long however. I saw, what I thought would be a good crossing window, and departed towards Anclote key which is just North of Clearwater. I was really hoping to visit friends in Regatta Pointe Marina and the crew aboard the good ship Wanderlust, but I was pressed for a good weather window.
My trip to Anclote Key was a nice blend of Tampa Bay, narrow canals, numerous bascule bridges and boat traffic. After clearing Clearwater (if I’d known what was coming, I’d have stopped there) I followed the ICW towards a small spit of sand that provided decent coverage; however the full moon phase played interesting games with the tide. The west coast of Florida has a weather pattern that is somewhat predictable but interesting during the summer months. Around 4-5 P.M. thunderstorms form over the mainland and move offshore. These daily occurrence pop-ups can really create some nasty conditions. Unfortunately about 15 minutes after anchoring I saw one of these menacing clouds forms and send a wall cloud directly towards me. The wind rose to 20 knots, then 30, then 40 with gusts of 50. As I started to worry about my ground tackle holding I looked ahead and saw a waterspout form. Awestruck, a knot quickly formed in my stomach as it began to shift straight towards the boat. As the water-nado barreled directly towards the boat a gust of wind caught the boat and pushed it hard to starboard and out of the direct path of the waterspout. But, the edge of the wind tunnel ran alongside the port deck, yanking the boat over and attempting to take my dinghy with it. Fortunately I had the dink tied off on the bow and the port stern. I had removed the starboard strap to allow access to my anchor locker. The dinghy stood up against the lifeline, but stayed on deck. I ran forward and lashed the dink down correctly and then retreated to the cockpit to start the engine. I proceeded to run in forward to take some strain off the anchor while the gusts howled through the rigging and the boat bucked in the wind driven waves. In the end, our oversized 33 pound Rocna and 60 feet of chain paired with nylon rode really saved the day. I was on a lee shore and If I broke free I probably wouldn’t be on the panhandle right now.
The next day, I was hesitant to continue on knowing I could run into those same conditions far offshore. I scoured the forecasted weather patterns, offshore forecast models, and sea state. None of the days looked optimal, but Tuesday looked the most promising so I pressed on. I was hoping that If I did run into any weather it would be weak by the time it got to me 50 or 60 miles offshore. Plus, I figured, what are the chances of getting blasted twice? Memo to self: never ask that question.
So, I departed Anclote Key at sunrise through the nearby channel, cleared the shoals, and set a course for 315 degrees towards Apalachicola. The day went great. I had 2-3 foot seas shoving me and a slight wind on my beam. All was going well and once I was well offshore I saw the late afternoon storm lines building along the coast. My VHF weather alarm started ringing and continued to do so for about 2 hours. Tampa Bay and Clearwater were getting hammered with bad storms and I had cleared them. Unfortunately, a storm line came out of Cedar Key. The wall cloud descended upon me and brought with it sustained 35 knot winds for 20 minutes. After powering through the wind driven seas that were tall and steep, I continued my altered course due East until the front passed and got through the tightly packed waves. The boat lurched and plunged down into the next wave set for an hour. Then things cleared up and I thought that I was finally free from storms for the rest of the night. Again, I was wrong.
Pop up storms began building after 11 pm and chased me across the gulf all the way to Apalachicola. Fortunately I had my awesome “Weather team” telling me which direction the fronts were moving. I used my Delorme satellite messenger and Emily and my parents crosschecked my location with their weather apps to tell me which way the storms were moving and guide me out of their paths. Things had almost cleared again until 1:30 in the morning when a massive storm with a magnificent display of lightning began to speed my way. It was moving west, but building North. I altered course to the North to try and outrun it. The engine throttled up and we were making ground, but not enough. The lightning cracked and lit the sky directly behind me. I could feel the breeze building 15, 20, then 25 knots. Here we go again, I thought. But then, the wind began to decrease, the cloud line moved away, and the storm broke up. Phew! An hour later the sun rose, and I made my approach to the East pass to enter Apalachicola. After 33 hours of offshore “fun”, I tied up to the pier at Apalachicola Marina. After a nice long shower, and a few necessary chores, I crashed in the vberth and got some much needed sleep.
The sea is a magnificent place. Mother Nature holds the power to make even the most skilled sailors rethink their decision to venture into her watery dominion. It is a place where heaven and hell meet and duke it out on a regular basis, with no regard for those who venture through the battlefield. In order to survive, you must be confident, but, more importantly, respectful of the powers over which you have absolutely no control. And yet, the sea also holds some of the most amazing beauty. During the storm offshore, I was greeted by dolphins that stayed by my side at an arm’s length away from the cockpit. While the boat was crashing through wave after wave, they would roll on their side and look right up at me. Between them and the family who were worrying, storm-plotting, and praying back home, I was lucky not to feel truly alone in what can seem a very isolated, dangerous world. Those 33 hours brought me further into the deep, divergent realm that is the sea than I have ever been before. They humbled me, and brought me strength.
However, if I could avoid such a constant barrage of storms in the future, that would great.