Date: 22 Feb 97 13:10:14 EST
From: Gene Gruender <104675.2134@CompuServe.COM>
Subject: Rainbow Chaser goes to the Tortugas

Wow! Why didn't someone tell me about this before? Sailing downwind! It's great! We've pounded to windward for about 1000 miles, leaving St. Pete going downwind to the Dry Tortugas was quite different.

We got away a day late. We planned to leave on a Friday morning, however they were forecasting 25 to 30 knot winds out of the South for Friday. We've done that and it wasn't fun. We elected to just hang on the hook another day in Sunny St. Pete. The forecast for Saturday was 20 out of the North. New to us, but we knew it would be better than the same out of the South, dead on our nose. It is around 15 miles from the marina we were at to the Gulf of Mexico and the wind hadn't veered around to North yet, so we started motoring out. About half way it started picking up and shifting around. so we got some sail up. With our big jib and the main, we were about hard on the wind doing hull speed. A trip across the bay, out the South pass from Tampa bay and into the Gulf of Mexico. We'd get a few miles out and turn South.

We cleared the last marker about 11:30 AM, went about 3 miles, turned left and started going downwind. Hull speed on Rainbow Chaser (the theoretical top speed possible) is 7.4 knots. With the wind behind us, the big full batten main winged way out and the jib out, too, we were seeing from 7 to 10.5 knots as the rollers passed under us. We were averaging over 8 knots. Then the jib fell in the water!

I couldn't believe the jib halyard, the line that raises the jib, broke in half.

I'd just checked it a day before and it looked ok. It was the original, 15 years old, but had hardly been used, since the last 14 1/2 years there was a roller furler on the jib and it just laid there. But it was broken, regardless, and there wouldn't be a jib the rest of the trip. There was no way I could go up the mast in those conditions and fix the problem. All I could do was pull the sail in out of the water and get it into a bag.

Even with no more than the main up, we were still doing from 6 to 10 knots. It was a very rolling ride, though, with the boat going in a lot of motions. Sort of gyrating as the waves passed under it. It took some time to find the right gain setting for the autopilot to handle the motions without oversteering all the time. Looking downstairs, it was plain that not everybody was enjoying the ride as much as I was. Zach was puking and Nellie was laying down trying not to.

Around 3 in the afternoon we saw another sailboat approaching behind us. It looked pretty small, but looks can be deceiving out there. It slowly caught and passed us at an angle, never coming closer than about a mile. It was sort of interesting, I was going faster than the boat was supposed to and here was another boat, which was smaller, therefore shouldn't be capable of going as fast as mine, and I'm being passed. Well, to let the story out, we met up with them at the Tortugas and it was a 45 foot Island Packet. Things can be very misleading out in the rough seas.

The waves were around 5 feet. They were going faster than us and as they passed under us they'd lift the rear of the boat, we'd speed up as we were sailing downhill, then as they passed, the front would raise up and we'd slow, going up hill. The boat would yaw a little from side to side, and we'd do it all over again. Over and over.

Without the jib, eventually we slowed down a little and I put the staysail out at a right angle. I could still get a lot of drive from it down wind by going "Wing on Wing" this way. It worked fine, as before, and added about a knot to the speed. Later Nelliewas at the helm while I was trying to rest and she started screaming. The staysail boom was pointing straight forward and banging the hell out of the bow pulput and forestay. The sheet had broken. I was a while getting that mess straightened out and everything moved back where it should have been. The sheet was too short now to put it back out, so we went the rest of the way with just the main. It turned out that one of the the gas cans had been sitting on the sheet and had chafed the line against a toerail bolt head and worn it through. Boy, you have to watch every little thing!

Ever wonder where the Dolphins are in rough weather? Youy know they have to be out there, but you don't see them. Dolphins are like little kids. They want to play, and they want attention. If they don't get it, they force it. I hadn't seen any all day and I suppose they didn't like it. The waves were about 6 feet from the tip to the bottom of the trough, when a huge dolphin shot out of the edge of a wave right at the top only 10 feet from the cockpit.. If he'd been in calm water, he'd have cleared the water about 3 feet and gone about 5 feet across. With a 6 foot high start, this giant shot out about 8 or 9 feet above the water and cleared 15 feet across! He accomplished his goal - he was noticed!

All afternoon and night there was no change. We traded the helm several times, but just kept heading South. About noon, Nellie woke me when she was talking to another boat on the radio. It turns out it was the people we'd seen the afternoon before, Bruce and Mary Carol Senay aboard "Dream Catcher", and they were also heading for the same spot. I'd put some coordinates in the GPS for the Tortugas and it said we were still 31 miles away. I'd resigned myself to the fact that we wouldn't get there until after dark, but Bruce told me that we were only about 7 or 8 miles away! Apearantly I'd entered a number wrong and it wasn't so far off it was obvious there was a mistake. I can only wonder what would have happened if we didn't notice the error, but I will double check those things more often!

They had been there before so we elected to follow them in. There is a lot of coral around, and, although the charts show it all to be deep enough until the actual entrance, we followed the established route to be safe. Once you get to the entrance to the anchorage, it is narrow and it is shallow with coral everywhere except the actual channels. Dream Catcher had already gone in while we were putting away sails, so we didn't see exactly how they made the last mile or so. We turned to go in the channel which turns around in front of Fort Jefferson withonly about 1/4 mile to go. All that stood between us, anchoring and some rest was one narrow place that looked silted in. It was only about 100 feet across and was white sand from one side to the other. I was sure that Dream Catcher had gone through there, but it just didn't look like it was possible. I thought you could walk across the whole thing.

We turned to go around to the other entrance, a trip of a mile or more, when Dream Catcher called us on the radio and assured us it was ok. They drew more water than us and made it ok. We could, too. Just stay to the middle! I held my breath and we scooted across - in 14 feet of water, looking at sand on both sides of the boat! It's going to take a bit of getting used to this crystal clear water.

We got anchored. I got the inflateable boat together, this time without cussing too much and without losing any parts. Things were looking up. We looked over and Dream Catcher's crew were their inflatable, "Wet Dream", and were heading to the fort. We'd meet them later. For a bit, though, we had a lot of straghtening up to do.

Gene Gruender
aboard Rainbow Chaser