Everglades Challenge 2013
Jarhead/Moon Shadow Recap

My start was a bit slow. People were in my way at first, and then the boat ran off of the rollers short of the water, causing me to have to re-inflate several rollers to get moving again.
Once afloat, I sailed off nicely under full sail SW toward Egmont Channel, soon passing Mariah, the Sea Pearl Tri (with a reefed main) with Etchemin and NightNavigator aboard. The wind was out of the NW only 5-8 mph and the sky was sunny despite predictions of high winds and seas later in the day. I was worried about the forecast, but determined to go outside in the Gulf instead of down the ICW. However, after several miles I noticed dark clouds forming to the NW, and I turned SSE toward “The Bulkhead”, a gap in shoals through which most boats need to go from Tampa Bay to proceed S on the ICW. I felt I was wimping out, of course, but it seemed foolish to head into the Gulf with a storm forming. Maria continued on out to the Gulf.
Before reaching The Bulkhead I noticed a Sea Pearl 21 on my right front also heading to the ICW. It was ExciteableBoy and Runswithbeer in Allez. They also had intended to go outside and then changed their minds, which made me feel a little better about my own decision. I fell in behind them, and for a while we swapped leads and chatted while sailing together. Between Longboat Key and the Sister Keys we had to row-sail a bit due to wind blockage, but soon after that (around 1100) the wind increased sharply out of the N. Before long we were in the middle of Sarasota Bay in a surprising chop and whitecaps reefing down for better control. Wunderground shows gusts as high as 28 mph over several hours in the Sarasota area during this period. I put either 4 or 5 turns in the main and three in the mizzen to retain control. I believe Allez up ahead of me had more sail up, but in any case they experienced control problems and headed off toward Longboat Key and perhaps a little shelter in order to regroup. I wondered how the sailboats were doing outside, and learned later that one catamaran capsized and sank while everybody else definitely had their share of excitement and concern.
Then wind steadied and eventually dropped to NW 10-12 mph for the rest of the day. Except for Sarasota Bay, the water was almost flat for those of us inside, and I found the sailing to be very pleasant. Passing homes, marinas, docks, etc I had a sense of progress that’s often missing when you are bouncing around in the Gulf. I passed numerous WaterTribe paddlers. One bridge operator was obnoxious, but four opened for me with little or no delay. It was good to hear Allez over the VHF request bridge openings just behind me; for a time I wondered if they had broken something and had to drop out. Reports of capsizes of catamarans were on the radio, and rescue/law enforcement boats raced up and down the ICW with sirens screaming. Puma, Coastie and ClamCounter, and Izatarock all were upended, but only Puma was unable to continue.
I arrived at CP1 (Cape Haze Marina) around 1800, having averaged an even 5 kts for the day, but then wasted quite a bit of time trying to find my cell phone. I thought I had lost it and took a ride toward town with the very helpful Bill Dolan to buy another. We turned back when we learned that new cell phones need considerable charging before use. Later back at the checkpoint I found my phone, so the whole episode was a fiasco. Allez and Moon Shadow left CP1 together at about 1930.
The wind was still NW, but had dropped to perhaps 5 mph. We sailed slowly down the ICW toward Placida, and I sometimes row-sailed to keep up. We joined Kokopedal and Teak in their 21 ft homebuilt tri, and all passed through the Boca Grande Bridge together. Once into Gasparilla sound the wind picked up slightly and the sailing was very pleasant. For whatever reason (probably my one-person load versus their two) Moon Shadow crept ahead of the others and lost contact as I enjoyed a beer, a crabcake sandwich, and a good cigar (Drew Estates La Vieja Habana). My spirits were high despite the dropping temperature. It was bumpy crossing Boca Grande, but the chop was moderate past Pelican Bay with its glowing anchor lights. This was very welcome low-stress sailing, and I settled down to sail through the night.
Around 0200 the wind died almost completely, and what had been a sprinkle turned into fairly steady rain. Rowing made no sense. I would soon be completely soaked with the temperature in the low 40s, and the interior of the boat would be collecting the rain. I tossed the anchor, furled the sails, pulled the cockpit drain plug, set the anchor light, pulled the camper top into position, and crawled in for some housekeeping and rest.
I’m not sure when I woke up. I do not use an alarm clock, reasoning that if I don’t awaken on my own, I am still very tired and need the sleep. In any case it was still dark and raining, but the wind was starting to build. When the rain finally stopped it was still dark, and I got underway in a NE wind of 10 mph or better. By daylight I was at the Sanibel W bridge, and from there I headed out into the Gulf to work my way down to the Marco Island area. I made good progress despite very bumpy seas. Around noon the wind shifted to the N and then NW, and picked up to average of perhaps 15 mph with gusts around 25 mph. My biggest worry was the swells almost on the beam. I’m sure the worst of them were 8’ and 10’ trough to crest. Pelican and his nephew Mark were upended in their Hobie TI by one of these swells while trying to enter Big Carlos Pass, I believe it was. They lost their boat and all of their gear. I had minor scares, such as the main boom tip dipping in the water when I reached out to tighten the outhaul after reefing, and catching the strobe on my PFD in the lines of the main boom vang as I tried to back down through the camper top into the cabin (in rough waters I frequently leave the cabin up to keep the boat interior dry). With the boat hove to rising and falling in large swells I had to take off my PFD in order to extricate myself. I had sea room to continue going backwards, though, and I am very confident in the boat’s ability to ride hove-to indefinitely if necessary, so this was not a terrifying situation.
To my surprise, Caxambas Pass was not difficult. By 1600 I was into the pass, and very pleased to have the wind behind me for the broad reach to Indian Key Pass, roughly 12 nm to the E. It was most uplifting to be past the Sanibel to Marco stretch, which I dislike, and into the Everglades, where solitude and the beauty of nature characterize both day and night.
I arrived at Indian Key Pass around sunset. Unfortunately for me, the tide was going out , and would not begin flowing in until well after midnight. I was able to sail and then row-sail against the tide and wind until I reached a point near marker G “23”, a few hundred yards from Chokoloskee Bay. If I could just reach Chokoloskee Bay I could turn SE and sail easily to CP2 only three nm away, but try after try to advance failed. The current was very strong there, and whatever the wind direction in the area was, the linear nature of the pass itself at that point caused a direct headwind to me. My boat veered into mangroves and oyster beds, and several times went 50 yards back downstream before I could regain control. I was becoming exhausted and very frustrated. The main boom hit me hard in the head several times, and the boat was filled with sticks and leaves. Finally I tossed the anchor. Thank goodness it held, and I called the CP manager (Whitecaps) to tell him not to wait up—I would have to wait for the tide to turn. Of course I knew that I would have to wait for it to turn yet again before I could leave CP2 (leaving Choko against the tide is much tougher than getting there against the tide). It was possible I could lose 12 hours getting in and out of CP2.
I took down the sails and got ready lie down when I resolved to keep battling. I decided that, despite the cold, I would take off my clothes and try to walk the boat up the oyster beds on the right side of the pass. Before stripping down, though, something made me pick up the oars and try rowing toward the anchor. To my surprise, I could put slack in the rode! It was only then that I realized that most of my earlier difficulty had been caused by the sails. Row-sailing has served me very well in the past, but in special circumstances the sails make rowing and maintaining direction almost impossible. The sails and the rudder need constant tending, which requires me to stop rowing, lean forward, and hold the oars down with my chest. The sails also cause the boat to move in wrong directions, a problem exacerbated by poor rudder effectiveness when moving very slowly. With the sails put away, I found that I could power my way upstream slowly but surely.
By 2100 I was into Choko Bay, I put up the sails and sailed to CP2 by around 2230. Once there I was in a big hurry to leave. The tide was very low but still going out, and I had a chance to work my way out to the open waters past Rabbit Key if all went well. I think I was moving out by 2300. The going was very slow due to the extreme darkness and the many shoals exposed by the low tide, but by 0100 on Monday I was in open water and headed SE towards Pavillion Key.
I decided to take a rest behind Pavillion Key. Many other keys beyond there have very shoal water around them, and beyond Lostman’s River there are almost no useful anchorages short of Little Shark Island far to the S. I felt that If I could get a few hours sleep I could push to Key Largo if necessary. At 0214 I sent an OK message on my spot from an anchorage in two feet of water on the S end of Pavillion Key. I hoped to sleep from 0230 to 0430 and leave by 0500, but I overslept and awakened at 0530.
It was still dark at 0600 when I got underway in a NE wind of about 8-10 mph. After daylight the wind increased and shifted gradually to the N and NW. I bombed along, often hitting 7 and 8 knots and more. At one point I saw a sail in the far distance, thinking it to be a WaterTriber who passed me while I was sleeping. Gradually the sail got closer, and I thought “I’m killing this guy—I’m running him down like a cheetah!.” The sail turned out to be powering a cruiser sailing N toward me, which accounted for my impressive closing speed.
A little before noon the wind began to let up. My speed dropped to the 3 kt range as I approached NW Cape, and soon I was row-sailing to try to maintain that. Then before I reached Middle Cape it picked up again from the NW, allowing me to maintain speeds of over 6 kts nearly to Flamingo. This was wonderful luck, as in the past I have spent many hours in light winds or strong E headwinds trying to get to Flamingo.
By about 1630 I arrived at CP3. I would have loved to shoot the breeze with the CP manager and good friend Ridgerunner, but again I was very eager to get turned around and have a chance to clear Tin Can Channel in daylight. I left Flamingo at about 1700 with a most unexpected mild S wind assisting me in traversing Tin Can. This 4-mile stretch in the soft light of late afternoon was absolutely beautiful. The water was crystal clear, and wading birds of all kinds were standing on shoals. I reached the end of the channel past Bouy Key just after sundown and rounded up to anchor and change to night clothing. Quickly donning long johns, foul weather gear, knit cap, and headlamp, I pulled the anchor and tried to get underway. There was no wind! I was astonished to realize scarcely a breath of moving air was available to help me across the bay. This was a depressing development. I knew a very good or record time for a solo sailor was nearly guaranteed if I could get some helping wind, but every minute wasted was gone forever. I had to row and pray for wind.
Off came the foul weather jacket, and soon the pants. Even though the lower body is motionless when rowing Moon Shadow, the entire body heats up from the effort. Soon I was rowing in long john bottoms and a light sun shirt. I rowed to the Dump Keys and had some difficulty finding and staying in the channel. From there I rowed around End Key and found the start of Twisty Mile. There I anchored to try to formulate a plan to get through. There was actually a one or two mph breeze, but it was not enough to propel the boat forward against the tide, which seemed to be moving diagonally across the channel. Without anchoring the boat would be slowly swept into inches deep water and muck while I studied my charts and GPS.
Florida Bay was exceptionally beautiful in this calm. There was no moon yet, and the reflection of the stars was all over the water. Ambient light from Miami evidently reflecting off of markers seemed to form barely luminous ball-shaped clouds of fog that stood out here and there from the blackest parts of the panorama. Fish often jumped and scattered when I swung my spotlight around trying to find channel markers, and occasional birds called out. A few ospreys scolded me when I neared their nests.
I got cold at Twisty Mile and eventually decided to row on 1.65 nm to the S to Calusa Key, where a shorter, straighter channel crosses the same shoal. When I got there around midnight or a little after a NE breeze picked up enough for me to sail! It was slow going at first, but I got through the channel, rounded up, and donned warm clothes again. The moon came up, looking like a huge orange slice when it was low in the sky. With spirits very high I headed off for what I call S Jimmie Channel, which is a short channel unnamed on the charts S of the well-known Jimmie Channel. My reasoning was to avoid the N-S Manatee Pass, which comes after Jimmie Channel. The wind was pretty close to N, and I was afraid it might pick up and make Manatee Pass very difficult. By using S Jimmie and then the unnamed pass between Stake Key and Low Key, I would have to work my way N to get around Bottle Key, but , unlike in Manatee Pass, I would have room to tack. This plan worked fine, though it cost me some time. The wind never did pick up much strength, and I probably could have rowed through Manatee Pass without difficulty and shortened the route by a few miles.
By 0415 I was at R “60” on the ICW that runs along the Florida Bay side of the keys, only 3 nm from the finish. There I made the mistake of selecting my never-used waypoint “Bake” for Baker Cut, the entrance to Sunset Cove and the Bay Cove Motel. Unfortunately sometime or another I had fat-fingered the latitude for that waypoint in my GPS, and it led me exactly one nm S of Baker Cut. Tired and confused, I searched for the cut, not understanding what was wrong. While I studied my chart with my headlamp on, the wind blew me into mangroves and then into shoals and then into somebody’s stone steps and dock. Once again I broke my New Year’s cleaner speech resolution (earlier head blows from the boom also caused very loud infractions). Light sleepers in this area had to be startled by what they heard. After discovering the error I then realized that I had to tack against a very light N wind to get back on course. After observing a VMG (velocity made good) below one kt for a while I knew I had to row or I would not reach the finish before 0700, which would be exactly three days from the start of the challenge. I jumped to the thwart and started pulling, stopping only to look anxiously at my watch now and then.
I finished at 0645, which gave me a time of 2 days, 23 hours, and 45 minutes, a new record by a little over 6 hours. I will say here and many times again that I cannot carry Wizard’s (Matt Layden’s) kit bag as a sailor or a WaterTriber. He is an idol of mine and perhaps THE preeminent WaterTriber. He sails relatively slow, small boats and still holds 4 of the top 5 single male class 4 EC times. I can’t say what the weather comparison would be between the 2013 and 2006 races, but clearly Moon Shadow is a much faster boat than Enigma, the boat in which I believe he set the earlier record.
This was a fast race but not an easy race. All of the competitors faced some daunting conditions. I consider this to be my best challenge effort, which I judge not by time but the quality of effort overall and the fewest mistakes. My wasted time at CP1 did not affect my overall time, nor did my stop for the calm and rain on the first night, because I was not going out in the Gulf until first light anyway unless the weather report had been favorable, which it was not. I was a little clumsy at the top of Indian Key Pass, losing time until solving the steering problem. Sleeping behind Pavilion Key was pretty much necessary to avoid eventual exhaustion and possibly serious mistakes. Avoiding Manatee Pass was maybe overly prudent, but I knew I could still have a record time taking the longer route that I did. Using the bad waypoint at the end cost me about an hour. That was pretty stupid in retrospect, as I could have followed lighted markers to the finish. I had many accidental jibes, some of them severe in force. These almost always result from inattention. They didn’t affect my time this trip, but they can pose serious risks, and I believe one or more of them bent my now somewhat banana-shaped main boom.
Once again the Sea Pearl 21 proved to be a terrific boat for the Everglades Challenge. All of my friends know I think the world of Graham Byrnes and his Core Sound series boats. I consider his boats to be superior to the Sea Pearl in some very important ways, including being able to be righted after capsize, upwind ability, downwind ability in a strong blow, and adaptability for special sails. For my purposes, though, which are not primarily racing, the Sea Pearl is a brilliant fit. Being fiberglass, it is nearly indestructible. It is very fast on a reach, and not so bad on a run up to the 11-12 knot range. It is terrific in light air and it rows wonderfully well for a sailboat. The leeboard simplicity is often a plus, not subject to leaking or jamming as are centerboards. The camper top is extraordinarily effective, and can be left up when underway, a huge plus anywhere thunderstorms are present. Reefing the boat is a simple and secure process, and it is easy to handle; thus it is an excellent boat for a solo sailor. The Sea Pearl has been piloted to the finish by a solo sailor at least 10 times in Everglades Challenges, far more than any other sailboat.
The other Sea Pearls finished well and met their goals. Exciteableboy and Runswithbeer were right behind me, while Etchemin and NiteNavigator came in the next day, the first Sea Pearl Tri to enter or finish the Everglades Challenge. For all of us EC 2013 was an unforgettable experience.