“Call for the Captain ashore. Let me go home. I want to go home.” – Sloop John B, adapted by The Beach Boys from The John B. Sails, Bahamian folk song
From my ship’s part-log, part-journal, day one:
“Departed the marina ~9:30am. Failed to account for the incoming tide of Tampa Bay. Also failed to communicate / understand that “5-1/2 hours to Venice” meant 5-1/2 hours from the end of Tampa Channel. The bay was pretty flat with minimal wind. We only put up the working jib, as the Coast Guard was relaying a National Weather Service severe weather warning ALL DAY. Once out of the bay, it was a pleasant motor sail south about 3 miles off shore past Anna Maria Island, our old home, and then Longboat Key.
It was after 4pm when the low dark clouds appeared over Siesta Key. We took in sail and battened down the hatches as soon as the westerly wind started to clock around eastward. About 4:30 we felt the temperature drop, and the real storm started about 5:10. The lightening that had crackled over the land was now just off our bow. When the autohelm could no longer hold course, Lee took the wheel, but even with his strength, it was difficult to maintain our 155 degree heading towards Venice. We turned into the wind, almost due east, gusting to speeds of over 40 kt. The depth transducer kept turning off and on. The boat pitched and rolled, but Lee handled her and she handled brilliantly.
When we’d had enough, he put her hard over to go with the wind, which significantly reduced the apparent wind speed and the rain that had been pelting our faces. Eventually we were able to regain course towards Venice and some actual light between the clouds. Still, the lightening wouldn’t quit. It was off both sides of the bow and directly in front of us. Then one big strike hit what seemed like directly off our stern.”
We finally reached the jetty at Venice around 7pm. The tide was running out, the current was strong, and the marina was closed. Our friend, who had wisely stayed below, came up to assist with docking, and we strategically drifted up the the fuel dock and tied up for the night. Dinner at the Crow’s Nest was excellent. Conch fritters.
I will say I was glad to be on our sturdy new Island Packet through the scary stuff. We had gained confidence in the boat, just not in ourselves. With storms forecast to cross Florida from east to west every single day for the foreseeable future, we decided to take advantage of the “inside route” down the west coast for as long as we could before making the jump to the Keys. On day two, we made it a whopping twelve miles down the Intracoastal Waterway to Englewood before putting in at a dock to wait out the afternoon’s storm, which curiously skirted around our chosen location. Lee studied the chart plotter, and we set our sights on Fort Myers Beach, which would be a manageable motor down “the ditch” the next day.
On day three, we almost made it to Ft Myers Beach. It had appeared on all the weather apps that the afternoon thunderstorms would do just what they did the day before, pass on either side of us. But by mid afternoon, on the water it appeared that the storms were closing in all around us. Not wanting to attempt to navigate a new channel and dock at a new marina in a thunderstorm, we turned around and headed north to where we’d seen a larger sailboat anchored off of the ICW in a few feet of water.
Not long after we’d set the hook, the wind clocked around in a now familiar way, and we swung about 180 degrees on our anchor chain. Thankfully, the anchor held us, and the three of us hunkered down below. We watched the one other boat in our anchorage bobbing in the swells and wondered if anyone was aboard. We talked a lot about lightening and practiced using the spare VHF – just in case. Then just like the day before and the day before that, the storm passed. We hung the hammock from the dinghy davits, and I made tacos and margaritas. We explored our little anchorage by dinghy and retired after sunset.
Day four. “Sorry, I know, red sky in the morning and all,” said our friend, “but this sunrise is gorgeous.” The southwest Florida sunrise was in fact gorgeous, and quite red. We pulled up the anchor and got our earliest start of the trip. We motored south, bound for Fort Myers Beach, where we knew we’d have a decision to make about the continuation of the trip. Passing the inlet, we gazed out in the direction of the Gulf of Mexico. Another sailboat was outbound, heading out to adventure.
The channel into Ft Myers Beach curves around the backside of the island and hugs the shore. We could have tossed a football to the couple standing on the beach at Bowditch Point Park. As it turns out, it’s also the channel for the large Ft Myers to Key West Ferry, so it is deep and well-marked. Arriving at Moss Marina, we tied up to the fuel dock, filled the tanks, and stared at one another for a moment.
We’d made this trip before. In 2005, we brought our Cheoy Lee ketch, S/V Westward, from Bradenton Beach, Florida, to Oriental, North Carolina, mostly via the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW). The trip took us 5 weeks on a boat that we’d lived on for nearly two years. This time, on a brand new boat, unfamiliar with her modern systems, we’d allowed ourselves 15 days. By the time we docked in Ft. Myers beach, we were already 6 days “behind schedule.”
In addition, the weather system that would eventually become Tropical Storm (and twice briefly Hurricane) Elsa was moving westward across the Atlantic. It was too early to tell what path she would take. Would she impact the east coast? The Florida Keys? The Gulf of Mexico? Ultimately, she did all three.
We’d budgeted all of our allotted vacation from our corporate jobs for this trip, and we were quickly running out of days. In a quiet moment after coffee, our friend informed us that he’d booked a flight out the next day. So in a strange parallel to our first trip aboard our Cheoy Lee, the friend who’d signed on for the trip departed, and we hired a Captain.
We had every intention of bringing Siar around from Florida to North Carolina ourselves. We made the decision to park her at Moss Marina in Fort Myers Beach to sit out Elsa. I watched as the storm took a track eerily similar to that of our first ever hurricane, 2004’s Charley, which at the time was the 2nd costliest hurricane in US history. We doubled the dock lines and took down both head sails in preparation. Unless you plan on replacing or upgrading your sail set, that’s not something you want to do within the first month of boat ownership.
Other than our visit from Elsa, we enjoyed our time in Fort Myers Beach. It’s a part of Florida we’d never visited before, and it reminded us of our old home on Anna Maria Island. Using our last few vacation days to wait out Elsa, we frequented the beach, running back across the island to the marina from the daily afternoon thunderstorms. We ate fish tacos and bought ourselves some hot sauce for the collection. We befriended the house singer at a local watering hole and told him our story. He dedicated a song to us – Sloop John B – “I want to go home.”
We met Cap’N Blaine in Fort Myers Beach on a Friday afternoon in July, after Elsa had passed. Blaine is one of those been-everywhere, done-everything kind of guys. He doesn’t brag, though; things just come out in conversation. Delivery captain, sailing instructor, motivational speaker, overland tour guide, and van nomad. It was the last role that he’d intended to fulfill that week in July. Normally he wouldn’t do a boat delivery during hurricane season. Thankfully our friends at Island Packet had intervened on our behalf. So Blaine agreed to take the helm, and signed on his trusted partner for such deliveries, Craig. The two of us headed back to North Carolina by train.
It’s not easy writing about leaving the boat in Florida. Were we disappointed, as Mr. Twain had predicted? Of course. Looking back on it a year later, however, we know we made the right decision. We’ve since sailed our boat to the Bahamas and back, and we’ve learned so much about planning and preparation that we simply didn’t know last summer.
I awoke around 3am on a Thursday morning in July. Siar was sailing northeast, well off the coast of North Carolina, bound for her new home port. I was hawking my phone from my bed some 250 miles inland. Siar’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) allowed us to monitor her position as Captains Blaine and Craig made her delivery from Fort Myers Beach to Beaufort, basically riding the windless wake that had been left behind by Tropical Storm Elsa. The plan was to stop for fuel in the morning and arrive at the dock in the evening. However, from their morning AIS position, it was clear they’d made the decision to skip the fuel stop and head straight for Beaufort harbor. They must have found some wind. When sailing, plans change.
So we breezed through the office, dropping off what instructions were needed, and jumped in the car to head over land for Beaufort. Siar’s arrival was quite the fanfare. My parents joined us on the dock, along with Lee’s father. Around 3pm, Blaine steered her into her slip while Craig tossed us the dock lines. I still enjoy telling the story of how we packed seven people into the salon of our Island Packet 349 for a champagne toast. Siar was home. So were we.
You Tube: The Beach Boys “Sloop John B”