Conch Life in the Florida Keys
Icons/LFlorish.gif 2009 - 2010 Icons/RFlorish.gif

Wind Blown Don
~ Wind Blown Don ~
Re Metau - Conch Life in the Florida KeysMood Swings
January 2009

On the topic of sailing in a small cruising vessel, the three emotions most often referenced are extreme boredom, sheer terror, and pure exhilaration. We experienced all of these in the 24 hours it took us to sail to Key West. The emotional ride began when we hauled anchor off the coast of Boca Grande in the late afternoon and met with rolling seas just outside of Charlotte Harbor. Rounding the final channel marker put the wind dead on our nose, forcing us to tack back and forth to make way. Four hours and eight knots of wind only gained an excruciating 2 nautical miles. Boredom descended and the siren song of the Conch Republic was strong. As much as we hated to we felt forced to kick on the engine.

By late afternoon the wind died, but our resignation to motoring was softened by the blissful knowledge that we were heading toward paradise - the Florida Keys. Nightfall presented us with glassy seas under a star studded sky. I offered to take the first watch while Don attempted sleep. In the company of a few shrimp boats casting wide circles of illumination, I staved off the tedium by singing along to the iPod, dancing in the moonlight, and sipping lots of java. By 2:00 AM, I was feeling a little too lulled by the droning purr of the engine, and Don began to stir. I relinquished the helm, iPod and coffee to him and drifted off into a dream-filled slumber.

Just before dawn I popped out of the cloak of the quilt only to find us cloaked in fog.

“It’s been like this since I took watch.” We’d anticipated the need to be on the lookout while in the path of the Key West Express Ferry that traveled at the lightning speed of 41.5 knots. Fog did not bode well for our intentions. Don highlighted the suspended droplets with the spot light, but we still had a puddle of visibility around us. The aquamarine mirror of the Gulf’s surface indicated we were closer to our destination. Hopefully the ferry had really good radar and a watchful crew.

Key West Lighthouse
~ Key West Lighthouse ~
The rising sun slowly began burning the vapor away and a freshened breeze coming ever so slightly from the west began to blow. We enthusiastically hauled up the sails. But Mother Nature was feeling a bit manic and the fog didn’t really dissipate. By 2:00 PM it coalesced into a rolling band of threatening clouds.

“Fronts coming. Looks like we’re gonna get wet.” I dug out our rain gear just as the first drops began to fall. In preparation for the strong blow that would surly follow, we opted to drop the mainsail. Don began turning us into the wind, and like a nymph the breeze rotated before us until it veered due north and abruptly mutated into a screaming demon. Wedged between the mast and pulpit, I watched the port cap rail dip into the water. Don looked like the Gorton’s Fisherman grappling with the wheel while I wrestled to douse the sail.

The previously absent wind began blowing 25-30 knots, putting us on a 6 knot run. The 12’ – 15’ waves that followed pushed us up to our max hull speed. Normally in high winds, the standing rigging on some sailing vessels reverberate with an eerie moan. But I swear I heard “WAAHHH HOOOO!!” from Re Metau as each wave lifted her, thrust her forward, and then let her slide down toward the trough. Our blue water boat was finally in the element for which she was built and she was riding it like a blue ribbon thoroughbred.

Without a whisker pole, the jib collapsed then billowed out with a shotgun crack each time we plowed over a crest.

“Do you think the staysail would do better?” Don proposed as he fought to keep our course with each roll.

“I was thinking we furl the jib and motor.”

This fairly ordinary task turned into a series of ‘OH S**T!!’ moments. I released the jib sheet in preparation, but our pitching and rolling caused the furling line to fall off the drum and bind in a jumble around the base of the forestay. Don yelled something about the jib sheet going into the water, but I saw the stopper knot wedging the standing end in the block and was confident it wouldn’t get wrapped around the prop. My more immediate attention was drawn to the bowsprit. The cacophony of the luffing jib exceeded the screaming wind and I needed to go ride that bucking bronco to untangle the chaos. At least it had stopped raining.

With whatever calm I had reserved, I worked through the mass of line, and then hastily furled the jib from the bow. But it wouldn’t completely roll up, and the wind continued to pry the sail open. I headed back to the safety of the cockpit to assess the situation. The cause, to both our horror, was in fact the jib sheet in the water. It hadn’t wrapped around the prop, rather it had made one big loop around the entire keel! With the line swaddling the hull, we were unable to set or furl the jib, and with the jib luffing wildly, we were unable to loosen the line. Although we were in neutral, the kinetic energy of our momentum caused the prop to spin freely. Untying the stopper knot meant risking another bind up in its vortex. I took the wheel while Don retreated to the bow to do some primal scream therapy.

At this point, I began wondering if Tow Boat US would come out this far in such bad weather. Don took a more logical approach and came up with a way to get the prop to stop spinning.

“Do you think you can turn her into the wind? We’ll have to time it with the waves so we don’t get broadsided.” I rounded Re Metau as fast as she would go and the boom, previously left unsecured, flipped out of the gallows and swung wildly in assistance. Don untied the jib sheet and safely pulled it free, then set out to tightly cleat every line on deck. He even tightened the draw strings on his hood so it wouldn’t fly off.

Relieved of the helm, I went to check on the First Mate and ascertain the cause of all the crashing noises coming from below. Neptune had taken refuge under a cushion, his eyes as big as dinner plates. But I was happy to discover he hadn’t tossed his kibble – must’ve found his sea legs. The coffee percolator that had previously been braced onto our gimbaled stove turned out to be the source of the clatter. Breakfast and lunch time had long passed, but it was a constant effort just to keep from being pitched around. I had to forego the galley wench role. The crew just had to go hungry.

We spent six exhausting hours riding that roller coaster, fighting the wheel trying to keep the barn door of a rudder on course. I was grateful when Don stated he felt better positioned at the helm. Control issues or misperceptions about women drivers be damned, I gratefully acquiesced to his desire. As we got closer to the Keys, a distressing thought began to gnaw at my brain. I had charted our course and knew there was no break wall around the North West channel, just shallower water and a scattering of sandbars. Key West Harbor was only a harbor in name; minimally protected by two tiny islands to the west, the main island to the east, and a whole lot of open water north and south. I began whispering a mantra to the sea, pleading to calm her now completely erratic composure. Don popped my meditative bubble when he piped up “You know the waves are only going to get worse as we get into shallower water.”

“You just had to say that out loud didn’t you!” I really need to get him to work on his visualization skills.

The sunlight waned and Don’s level of stress rose by the time we reached the channel entrance.

“Just follow my waypoints and you’ll be fine. I’ve charted it so you’ll see the red markers. Just look for them” I soothed.

“But what about the GREEN markers!” he fretted. “Why didn’t you chart them?!” Our previous experience had been navigating channels wide enough for 2 or 3 boats to pass. Look right, you see red - look left, you see green. I’d plotted our course just off the red markers, so Don imagined running down green buoys that I’d not referenced. No amount of assurance seemed to pacify him. I took the wheel while he grabbed the spot light and binoculars to scope out the situation. He calmed down when he discovered 3 or 4 ships could easily pass in this channel – that is 3 or 4 cruise ships! We had more than 1000 feet of clearance on either side.

Key West Schooner.jpg
~ Key West Schooner ~

About the time we put Tank Island to the north, obscuring sheets of rain started to descend. At this point, I took the opportunity to do some primal scream therapy of my own. Suddenly, through the spray I saw what appeared to be a sloop anchored just out of the channel. Don confirmed the sighting; both of us disturbed by the lack of a masthead light on this somewhat exposed vessel.

“If he’s anchored here than we can too. There should be room” I reasoned. “As long as we can stay clear of him. Where is he? He was right there!” The rain subsided and the other boat disappeared like the Flying Dutchman! Clearly, Re Metau’s crew had become delusional with fatigue. It took no coaxing for Don to agree that the nook between the island and channel was an excellent place to drop anchor.

Alas, we were in Key West and we made it in one piece! We immediately decided to extend our stay. Our blue water cutter had lived up to her reputation with flying colors and we’d survived some valuable lessons (aka stupid mistakes) along the way. Neptune emerged from the cushions and before long our bellies were fuller and our liquor cabinet was emptier. The crew was ready to join the Conch Republic, where there was a whole different set of emotions to experience; extreme drunkenness, sobering repentance, and blissful island tranquility.

Copyright © 2015 Diana E Reynolds - SV Re Metau.  All rights reserved.

“Experience is the name we give out mistakes.” ~ Oscar Wilde