by Ed Combs
We left home at 6:30 (near I -75 Exit 282) and met Dave and Mary with their Mac 26X, Buffet's Fault, at Exit 116 at 10. We headed out on SR 41 on several WCTSS member's recommendations. I will not take that road to Homestead again. We ended up doing 45 mph for over half the way and 55 the rest. It is two lanes with few places long enough for me to pass and hope that Buffet's Fault could too, so it was miserable. This has happened nearly every time we have taken the "scenic route". We came back on Alligator Alley without any problems and got 12.5 mpg with the cruise control on 65. We arrived at Homestead Bayfront Marina later than planned, around 12:30. Met a guy named Bart rigging his Marsh Hen with his son for the trip over to Elliot Key to camp. Invited him to sail with us if he wanted. Met Rick, whom I remember from this year's BEER Cruise. He has an Aquarius 23, I think, and had his wife, two kids, and grandmother with him. I also invited him to sail with us. Talked to threeCanadians who were rigging a Mac 26D for a trip to the Bahamas. We were rigged and gone long before they got their mast up. I heard later they finally launched, but had a mainsail problem and ended up breaking their mast on the water.
We were in the forward spot of the designated Sailboat Rigging Area with Buffet's Fault behind us. I mentioned to Dave that the trees needed to be trimmed and that a Sea Pearl had knocked a mast down at Ft Desoto the year before in a similar situation. We were rigged and ready in about 20 minutes and ate lunch while waiting for Buffet's Fault. Dave told us to go ahead and they would catch up with us. I told him to sail 95 degrees to Elliot Key and they would see us. We launched, motored out the channel, and found we could only make good 60 degrees in 8 kts of wind. We tacked a couple of times and were about 2 miles off Elliot Key when Stin's Lilly P, a Potter 19, called to tell us the marina was full of no-see-ums. We decided to anchor a mile north of the marina 400 yards or so off shore to avoid the bugs. We called Dave and Mary, as well as any other club boats repeatedly on VHF 71 without reply. We were making our approach to the anchorage, over two hours since we had launched when Buffet's Fault called us on the radio to coordinate our locations. They came up behind us and looked odd. They didn't have a mast. They had finished rigging, pulled out to go to the ramp, and run straight into the forward overhanging tree. I felt terrible. They had driven all the way from Canada and broken their mast before getting into the water. We talked briefly, but I could tell they were bummed out, so we left them alone. A steady 8 kt breeze blew all night on the hook, which made for great sleeping and no bugs.
Saturday dawned over Elliot Key, and I got some good pictures of the other boats at anchor. The Mac still looks pretty good without a mast, but I knew that we had to do something. We waited until after breakfast, pulled the hook, and motored over to Buffet's Fault, dropped a short anchor near them, and talked about what they could do. They wanted to contact a local Mac dealer and order an M mast so they could make the 10,000 Islands Cruise with the WCTSS on the 7th (they were on vacation for a month). I tried information for the area on my cellphone. There wasn't one listed so I got Gulf Island Sails in Punta Gorda and left them a message that some people were looking for an X or M mast and passed the number on to Dave. They decided to go back to the marina to check on their truck and use the phone book and pay phone to find a mast. We wished them well while I continued to feel like crap for them. Stin and I went over to Elliot Key Marina for a quick shower and to plot our strategy for the day. While there I had time to talk to Bart, Marsh Hen, whom I had met briefly at Homestead Bayfront Park while he was rigging. It turns out he is a retired Alaskan Salmon fisherman, who still ran the family business back home, but now from Florida. He was having some motor problems and passed on sailing with us, but plans to make some WCTSS events in the future. Clean and relatively sober I motored a short distance out of the marina and raised sails for the trip south.
Stin and I took off on a southerly course to make the 1st ICW choke point 4 miles away. We were both using 110 lappers and new mains. I have the full batten main while he has the standard main. My understanding is the full batten takes some of the idiot out of sailing, that's why I bought it. I chose to angle out away from the charted shallows while Stin went across them and outran me. We stayed pretty close the rest of the day, but I was always behind. We were regularly hitting 5kts on the sail down on a beam reach with 10 to 14 kts of wind. The water was pretty calm. We had a great sail for the first 3+ hours but as we neared the Card Sound Bridge a bunch of power boats started blasting out. Stin and I sailed under the bridge without too much heart pounding. On the other side two 40 footers cut 20 feet in front of me with 5 foot wakes. I gave them a one finger salute and wondered why they had to purposely do stupid crap like that. We dropped sails and motored up the channel to Alabama Jack's restaurant. It was more crowded than I had seen it before. Stin went toward the docks but with the 3 kt current running I decided to swing around and dock along the tables on the back deck of the restaurant. I kicked the tiller over, gave the motor two quick blasts in fwd to get the stern swinging, waited until we were lined up to power forward of a 25 foot flats boat tied up behind where we were going, shifted into reverse as we neared our spot, Becky handed a guy at a table the forward line just as I stopped the boat dead in the current. I passed our aft line around the porch railing, and we were docked. I think people thought I knew what I was doing. While we were locking up, Ted, Hunter 19 Milk-n-Honey, came over to tell us he had a table over near the restrooms and band.
We did not have the best waitress in the world but she managed to keep us relatively well supplied with beverages for the first hour or so. We started wondering where the other boats were so we paid the check and moved the party out to the docks at Alabama Jack's where we met Dockmaster Charlie. He is quite the character. It seems he owns his own island that he is restoring to its former magnificence and harboring exotic animals on. We are all invited to go there, one day. You can email him at DockmasterCharlie@yahoo.com. Becky and I hopped on Minnow and tried to slip into the first open dock space near Ted. With the current we luckily made it into the third open one, near the very end. The tourists would have noted a look of panic on my face when I turned into the first space and just took off sideways with the current. We tied up and cracked open some of the ship's rum. About 3 we finally heard from Dave as he motored in. His 9.8 hp motor didn't help him with the current anymore than my 5hp motor, but we caught him and got him tied up pretty quickly. Ted and Dave went inside to eat while Stin and I stayed out and talked to Dockmaster Charlie. About 4:30 I went inside and pulled our fellow sailors away from the bar so we could get to the anchorage Ted knew about before dark. There was a little cut right behind the docks that led south into Barnes Sound and Short Key, our destination for the evening. The wind was fine, about 12kts, as we motored through the cut and all of us popped open a head sail, followed shortly by the mains, except Dave who decided to just lope along on his genoa since it was only a little over two miles to the anchorage. With full bellies and smiles on our faces we sailed zig-zag courses to the south.
We arrived after Ted and Stin, and Ted was nice enough to set our anchor for us, even if he did it in his BVD's. Dave came in shortly after and we all moved to the beach where I practiced my campfire making skills by lighting one of my fake fire logs. We quickly made room for our chairs, snacks, and beverages of choice and the party was on. The anchorage was all sand with a few mangroves here and there and the beach was pretty much the same. It was very nice and we will visit this spot again. Ted says there is enough water in a little cut near the beach to sail through into Manatee Bay so we may try that sometime too. We went back to our boats shortly after Ted "fixed" the fire and put it out. There was a nice 10kt breeze from offshore that kept Minnow well ventilated throughout the night as well as kept the bugs off us. We had a little bit of pounding with the resulting half gallon of water pumping up into the boat but other than that it was a fine night. We woke up around 6:15 and enjoyed a Bailey's and coffee in the cockpit while watching the some come up. Morning brought 15kt winds and whitecaps in Card Sound. We had a quick Skipper's Meeting and decided that sailing around in Card/Barnes Sound was off for the day as well as anchoring at Pumpkin Key with the predominantly south winds we were having. We decided to sail back up to Elliot Key and see what/who had shown up as well as check on Buffet's Fault. We pulled anchor behind the other three and raised a single reefed main for the beat across Barnes Sound to the ICW and a turn more to the north for some downwind sailing. Dave and Ted took off for the races with Ted running main only and Dave using a full main with some headsail unrolled. We decided to just mosey along in the 2-3 foot trough and get there a little more comfortably. Stin was running a storm jib and started putting some distance between us but in a more easterly fashion. We cut across sooner and we both ended up at Card Sound Bridge within a few minutes of each other. We sailed under the bridge and when we cleared the other side shook out the reef and started sailing up the ICW at 4kts with bursts to nearly 5kts. All the while we felt quite comfortable and I enjoyed several more Bailey's and coffees and another ham, egg, and cheese biscuit left over from breakfast. Stin was playing with sail combinations so I got a little ahead of him for a few miles. About noon I heard Dave calling "MoonDancer" on the radio. My first thought was that Bill and Ron had decided to join us, shortly after I saw Sundancer coming down the ICW toward us with a full main. I realized that Dave and I were both on our 4th or 5th beverage of the morning so his faux pax was understandable. Sundancer jibed around and paced us for a while so we could take pictures of each other before pulling away. Nearly 3 feet of waterline and a bigger main will do that every time. We all agreed to meet at Elliot Key Marina for showers and a late lunch before heading out to anchor again.
We got to Elliot Key behind everyone, including Stin, who had put up more canvas and picked a better tack for the last 3 miles or so to the marina. We showered and let Dave fire up his bigger grill. Hamburgers, beans, potatos, homemade guacamole, spinach dip, and a veritable plethora of beverages had us all smiling and swapping sea stories pretty quickly. Despite copious amounts of bug spray the no-see-ums were gathering their numbers for a full scale assault on our tiny group. We talked to the Potter couple who are camp hosts at Elliot. They are really nice and spend 4 months at a stretch on their Potter each year there at the marina. They have a dink and they can get free rides on the park boats so they don't have it too bad. While there we got to see the Marine Patrol write up a power boater for coming into the marina too hot. They should do that more often. Around 4 the bugs just got to be too much so we all motored out to just north of the swim area where Ted swore we would be fine. The bugs were just as bad there. I had a problem with my 5hp Honda motor when we tried to start it to leave the marina. The pull cord had pulled without engaging a few inches a couple of times and suddenly would not engage at all. I pulled the cover off and rewound the cord but it was plain to see that the cord gear was hung up above the flywheel and was chewing the plastic cogs up. While I was looking in the manual Terry from Whisper, came up and punched the gear back down &endash; fixed. Every time I pulled it the next two days I worried but did not have any further problems. It is due for its 100 hour service so I will have them check that too.
When we got to the beach anchorage Frank showed up with Gustavo on his Mac 26X and gave us a bag of ice. It was too late for my lukewarm beer (it was all gone by then), but it did keep our milk from spoiling until I finished it Monday morning. A Sea Pearl father-son combo we met at the marina came out for a few minutes and tried to anchor near us but both the bugs and the rocky bottom ran all of us off shortly after. It was an older Pearl but looked like it was in pretty good shape. We got settled into our new anchorage just before dark and got a text message from Buffet's Fault asking us where we were and to turn on our radio. We fired up the radio and located their running lights to the north of our location. They were hugging the shore and ended up anchoring a good ways away for the evening. It was nice to know a little misfortune had not ruined their vacation. We played Yahtzee in the cockpit until 7:30 and went to bed.
We woke up Monday morning to a pleasant surprise. Buffet's Fault was no longer a motor boat, they had a mast on. They had tried buying one from a couple of dealers and by a stroke of good fortune had contacted KY Ken (retired Coast Guard rotor-head) who had an extra X mast that he had with him. He was on his way to Homestead and then the 10,000 Islands Cruise with his wife and two daughters and showed up Sunday with the mast for Dave and Mary. Dave spent most of Sunday drilling holes and rigging the mast and made it out before dark on Sunday. We communicated our pleasure they were back and started coordinating plans via the radio. Everyone agreed to sail north with Boca Chita as a destination. If it was too crowded we planned to anchor nearby or just turn around and come back, sailing is sailing. Ted said goodbye and went to Elliot Key for a shower before heading back to his marina below Alabama Jack's, Stin went in to let his dog relieve himself and take a shower, and Frank and Gus went in too. Red Tag and Minnow hoisted sails shortly after Whisper &endash; Siren 17 with Terry and Ruth onboard &endash; took off like a shot. There was very little wind so we swapped out for the genoa on Minnow and ghosted along with a steadily building wind. Frank called to offer everyone Cuban pastries but we politely declined since we were in what some would call a race with Dave on Red Tag. I wish they had announced they had good food before we got our sails up. Dave and Mary were still putting their main on and told us they would be along shortly. Sundancer got underway a half hour or so after us and started closing immediately. We were doing 4 kts or so within an hour of raising sails so life was good again. Whisper called to let Sundancer &endash; who had passed us shortly before &endash; know that it was very shallow on the bar. Dave called to report he thought there was only 18" or so of water &endash; too little for Sundancer &endash; so we turned around with them and went through the ICW cut to the west and turned into the eastern channel of Boca Chita basin. Terry and Dave went around to a sandy beach in the cut going into the Atlantic that Terry had seen and reported great water all the way around within 20 feet of shore. Sundancer and Minnow sailed up the channel and Becky got some great pictures of Sundancer with the lighthouse in the background. As we made the turn to round the point in front of the beach where Terry and Dave were we heard from Buffet's Fault, who was going through the ICW cut a mile or so behind us. The beach was a pleasant surprise with only a little bit of power boat wake when they would blast by near us on their way out. Buffet's Fault dropped their anchor and slid back to raft up with Minnow for Happy Hour on New Year's Eve. I fired up my new gas grill and made a pack of hot dogs for the crowd while Stin made a filet mignon. We swam a little, had a few beverages, and discussed what we were doing next. The group decided to return to the beach on the north end of Elliot Key beside the Tide Station. We sailed back the way we came following Sundancer and Buffet's Fault. Red Tag and Whisper ran across the bank again for the return. I could tell Dave needed to do some tuning on Buffet's Fault when I sailed past him on the way out to the ICW. He must have figured it out after we made the turn because he passed me and just kept on going away. But hey, I passed him once! The wind was starting to ease pretty quickly. We started out with 8 &endash; 10 kts leaving Boca Chita, had 6kts going through the ICW cut, and faded to 3 or 4 about a half mile away from the beach where Sundancer, Red Tag, Lilly P, and Whisper were. We dropped sails and motored in to a beautiful beach that only had a couple of power boats anchored off of it. Dave and I found out that if one of us has rum and the other has ice then all is right with the world. We drank a quart of Coconut Rum while talking to the other members of the group. Kentucky Ken showed up and we got to meet him. Nice guy and just a life saver for Buffet's Fault. We all pulled up stakes around 4:30 and anchored out a ways to get ready for New Years.
We played Yahtzee until nearly 8 and slept through another New Years. About 1am I woke up with mosquitoes and no-see-ums eating me up. The wind had died completely and they had mounted an attack. This was the first bug incident we had the entire trip on the boat. We hadn't bothered to put the mosquito netting out on this cruise and I wasn't going to look for it this early in the morning. We got up and just covered ourselves with OFF and put a sheet over us because it was so hot without the wind.
We got up around 6, had coffee, watched the jellyfish float by so a morning swim didn't happen, and then decided to head back. We raised the sails to let them dry but there was no wind so we motored at 3.2kts at barely a quarter throttle. Sundancer followed by Whisper took off shortly after with Dave soon after them. We found some wind and killed the motor to sail a while. We hit 4kts a couple of times but the wind tapered off again so we started motoring again. Buffet's Fault passed us about half way back to Homestead and I am guessing Stin is still out there sailing since we never heard from him despite calling him a few times on the radio.
We made it home just as the cold front really hit Tampa. Another successful cruise for Minnow and her fearless crew. No major casualties for us except the motor acting weird. 60 miles of mostly sailing was worth the drive.