Wave Hitting Us During Tropical Storm Barry
Exhausted After Reefing During Barry
Barry Makes Us Wet and Miserable
Arriving At Appalachacola Marina After Barry
|After a week of frolicking in the surf of Pensacola Beach, we were rested and could once again turn our thoughts towards giving Key West another go. Any multi-day, offshore passage first requires us to reprovision our stores, lest I be forced to consume a regular diet of Jason’s favorite cuisine du jour, Top Ramen. I’m actually not convinced he enjoys the taste of the stuff so much as he revels in the notion that two people can subsist on a 3000 calorie meal plan for the low-low price of about $2 a day. Rachel Ray might be impressed by his budget conscious choice, but I abandoned the noodley stuff, along with Taco Bell and Boone’s Farm wine, when I graduated college. Anyhow, reprovisioning typically entails stocking up on fresh foods, refilling our water and diesel tanks (the boat carries 125 gallons of water and 50 gallons of fuel), and ensuring that we have all of the proper charts for the seas we’re about to navigate. Lots of modern cruisers use a GPS system that coordinates passage making with a series of electronic charts. This system is indeed sweet, but expensive. After outfitting our boat with new sails, running rigging, a watermaker, and life raft, alas, electronic charts were not in the budget. So, the crew of the Lotus sticks with a divider, parallel ruler, a solid stash of pencils, and paper charts.
On May 30th, we had a respectable, pre-dawn start (always a struggle for me) and the perfect speed and direction of wind for a close-hauled and fast departure for the Keys. At noon we set into our standard watch shifts of 3 hours on, 3 hours off. For the first couple of days on a passage, we generally hold our watches loosely and keep one another company during the daylight hours. We stick closest to the watch schedule after sundown. By about the 3rd or 4th day of any passage this all falls a bit to the wayside as exhaustion begins to set in and we prefer as much sleep as we can manage rather than each other’s companionship. As Jason mentioned in a previous blog, he tends to get a bit green if the seas are unrelenting so there’s no passing the time with books or a game of chess with the captain. I typically while away the time reading about the next port we’re about to make land at or I listen to music.
A couple of duties are expected of the crew member who is on watch. We always keep an eye out for other vessels (namely large ships that don’t notice our little boat on their radar screen), chart the boat’s coordinates every 1-2 hours to ensure we’re on course, and listen to the weather broadcast on our single sideband radio (SSB). In spite of what The Perfect Storm may have led you to believe, most right-minded sailors won’t venture through the gulf-stream during hurricane season or attempt any manner of passage without consulting the 72-hour extended weather forecasted by NOAA. In theory, if you’re planning a relatively short passage, you should be able to wait for the optimal “weather window” for departure.
Prior to our Florida panhandle exit, we’d been eyeing a system that was developing in the Yucatan Straights, roughly 100 miles off the coast of Cancun, Mexico. It had all the signs of a standard low-pressure system, producing mild thunderstorms and predicted to wane within 1-2 days. Having already missed our desired course by a week, the weather forecast appeared fairly benign for an early June sail in the Gulf. And we set sail.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association broadcasts the weather every 6 hours according to region. During the forecast, a sailor listens for weather details specific to the latitude and longitude of their course. We were 2 days out and making great time, but still keeping a close eye on the system developing off of the Yucatan Peninsula. In 24 hours time it had been upgraded from a depression to Tropical Storm Barry, with predictions of movement east. The guess was that Barry would make landfall somewhere on the northeast coast of Florida. By day 2, it became evident that we could not miss a single weather forecast or continue on our course for the Keys. Even though the system predicted would produce winds and seas we could easily manage, it seemed best to err with caution. After 48 hours of perfect sailing we pointed the boat towards Tampa Bay. At 12 noon we were roughly 90 miles, or about 18 hours from making land on Florida’s west coast.
At 3 pm Jason and I traded shifts and I hunkered down in the main salon for a nap. At 6 p.m. there’d be another NOAA weather broadcast and Jason asked me not to let him forget to tune in. I was bleary and cursing the gods of the Gulf when I powered up the SSB for the latest update on the path of badass Barry. I sat there, fixated on the sounds of the rigging slapping into the mast as the digitized voice of “Perfect Paul” droned through each longitude of our region, beginning with the north seas. By the time Paul came around to the gulf latitude of 30, I was blown out of my stupor as my brain fixated on the latest tropical system update. Good ole, benign Barry had experienced a change of heart and in the past 6 hours began to beeline it for the west coast, with a specific aim at making landfall in the sunny city of Tampa Bay. Fuck.
It took us all of 2 minutes to realize we could not outrace Barry to Tampa. We would have to turn her around and point right back in the direction from where we’d come, what’s otherwise known as beating a hasty retreat. We sat quiet for the next hour or so. Neither of really felt like verbalizing the obvious, that the situation was frustrating and utterly out of our control. I guess this once reaffirms who emerges the victor in the classic narrative conflict of human vs. nature.
Tropical Storm Barry continued to build momentum into the night. The winds and seas had morphed from a brisk ride to soppy bedlam in the cockpit. There was no risk of falling asleep on watch this night. By 10 p.m. we’d outfitted ourselves with full foul weather gear, aka our “foulies.” The winds were now averaging 35 knots, producing waves 15 feet in height. Though the seas were not breaking over the boat, whoever was on watch could be guaranteed a healthy dousing of saltwater in the face every 10 minutes or so. We’d bought the silly rubber boots, the bib-style pants, the high-tech reflective coats, and even topped off the whole ensemble with waterproof hats. However, somewhere in the midst of all our pre-storm wardrobe planning we’d overlook two important items. Without neoprene gloves and goggles to keep the water out, keeping watch turned into a barely managed wrangle. In the midst of the futile duty of scouring the horizon for other boats (absurd with no visibility) our wind-vane steering failed.
What first attracted us to purchasing the Lotus from two nurses in Fort Lauderdale, Florida was the amount of offshore equipment the boat had been outfitted with. The former owners of the Lotus had hoped to do some long-term cruising of their own. After installing a series of blue-water items, including an expensive, hydraulic driven electronic autopilot system and a back-up, manual wind-steering vane, the couple decided living in tight quarters was not for them. These sorts of components made the purchase a great value for us. That said, the fancy and expensive electronic system was not really designed to function well in high seas. Our electronic autopilot had failed early in the evening. The manual wind-vane system was the opposite. It seemed to give its best performance when pushed to the brink. It had been steering the boat like some sort of ghost helmsman for the past 4 hours, allowing both Jason and I to hunker down tight under the protection of the dodger (think of it as the windshield for the cockpit) for most of our watch. At a few minutes after 10 p.m., with roughly 18-20 hours of sailing ahead of us, the lines controlling the windvane snapped from the strain and friction produced by the weather. We were no longer passengers.
The remainder of the night was grueling. We reduced our watch times to 1 hour; in truth, this change had little affect on our sleep anyhow, it’s difficult to slumber when you’re fretting about a spouse washing overboard. We steered 60 minutes on and 60 minutes off, with water crinkled hands and salt scorched eyes, for the next 18 hours.
The red and green buoys marking the entrance channel to Apalachicola, Florida were a spectacular sight for our sore eyes. We’d been emptied of all our energy racing on the outermost edges of Tropical Storm Barry for the past 24 hours. We were saturated, bleary and oh so ready to crawl in from out of the rain.