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Gene Gruender
Austin.sailor at

The Dry Tortugas
By Gene Gruender
Copyright 1997

Rainbow Chaser spent a week in St. Petersburg doing the family vacation thing. Some wonderful friends loaned us a car for the week and we tried to hit every place Chevy Chase would have in one of his family vacation movies. We were also probably about as silly as him chasing around town. We're going to have to decide soon if we're cruising or on vacation. I know there must be a difference, as being on permanent vacation is a killer.

When we left after our week in St. Petersburg we were facing another problem of our own making - we'd violated one of the basic rules of cruising. "Thou shalt not commit to meet someone at a place you are not at!"

We had about two and a half weeks to get to Nassau to meet my nephew. We'd committed to meet him there for spring break. It seemed like a fairly easy goal when we said we'd do it several months before, but we'd had weather window problems and some other things holding us back. Now we began to feel the pressure. We had planned to go to Sanibel Island. We'd met Claiborne Young, the author of "Cruising Guide to Western Florida", in St. Petersburg when he gave a talk. He told everyone just how nice it was. Now there just didn't seem like there would be time to stop.

When we left we headed straight for The Dry Tortugas. The day we planned to leave called for winds straight out of the South at about 20 knots. We have done the high winds on the nose before and really wanted to avoid it if possible. We're slow learners, but we've finally figured out it just isn't fun. By delaying our departure one day we were supposed to have 25 knots behind us. Sailing downwind has only been in our dreams up to now and we wanted to experience it in real life.

True to the National Weather Service's word, the winds clocked around to the North just as we left the protected waters and entered the Gulf. We turned South with the jib and main up and we were flying! As the rollers would pass under us, lifting the bow, our speed would drop to 6 or 7 knots. As the bow dropped on the other side, we'd increase to 10 and occasionally 10.5 knots! And this was with a theoretical hull speed of 7.4 knots! What a ride!

We made it about 10 miles and all of a sudden the jib was in the water! The jib halyard had parted right at the end. After gathering it up on the deck and assessing the problem, it was plain we wouldn't have a jib any time soon. I had no spare halyard and with the wild rolling there would be no going up the mast to re- thread the old one. We still had about 6 to 9 knots of speed, though, so we weren't hurting. We continued to sail through the afternoon and evening.

It continued about the same. Rolling and blowing. Sailing very fast. In the heavy seas I was wondering about dolphins. We see them all the time when it's smooth, but in these rough waters, they weren't to be seen. They still had to be out there. I was sitting there wondering how they could breath in such rough waters when a huge dolphin burst out of the edge of a wave about 8 feet high, and only 4 feet from the cockpit. He would have cleared the water about 3 feet and traveled 6 or 7 feet if it had been calm waters. From his vantage point of the top of the wave, I'd say he went about 10 feet above the water and cleared 20 feet! Talk about a grand entrance! They like to show off and be seen and I guess he just couldn't stand it any more. I saw or heard many more dolphins during the rest of the night, but none made such a dramatic attention getting move.

When daylight came, we were still charging south. We'd lost a bit of speed, although we were making pretty good time. I'd thought about it during the night and planned to set the staysail, which has it's own boom, out on the other side and go wing on wing. I refused to clamber around on the deck in the dark to get it out, but with the daylight I felt comfortable setting the sail for this. Once it was set, it again added another knot to our speed.

Our downwind sailing was certainly different than the pounding to weather we had been experiencing all the way from Texas. We didn't have spray in our faces all the time and we didn't have water all over the deck. We had no waves in the cockpit. We did rock and roll all over the place. I'm not sure which is worse. Maybe we needed to try something in the middle.

I was trying to get some sleep when Nellie yelled down that the staysail had a problem. I already knew something was amiss, as there was a lot of noise and slamming on the deck. Running up, I saw the staysail boom had traveled up, and pivoted around past the forestay. The staysail, with all it's battens, was pointing straight forward and the boom was jumping up and down and pounding the bow pulpit. What a mess.

After going forward and sorting it out, I discovered the sheet for the staysail had parted. Great. We have three sails and we're down to one. It took a few very wet minutes while getting shoved into waves coming over the bowsprit, and I got the mess back on deck. I discovered that the sheet had parted where a gas can sitting on it had chafed it through. We still have a lot to learn.

We were about 35 miles from Ft. Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas when we spotted another boat a little west of us. After getting them on the radio we learned that "Dream Catcher" was also going to the Tortugas. Nellie told them we were glad we only had 35 miles to go and we hoped we'd make it before dark. They asked what we were talking about. The buoy marking the approach was only 3 miles southwest of us - where was it we were we going? A quick check showed I'd put a wrong number in the GPS. I should have double checked. Boy, we still have a lot to learn!

We entered new numbers into the GPS and followed "Dream Catcher" on to Ft. Jefferson. It was pretty straight forward, even for us greenhorns, right up to the channel leading around the island. "Dream Catcher" went on in while we were putting away our one remaining sail in the pitching, rolling waters. Once we were ready to make our entrance they were in and out of sight. We went to the channel and started around. It's a normally marked channel, no different than most others, until you get right up to the harbor.

There is a very narrow cut between the island where Ft. Jefferson is located, and the island next to it. The white sand extends out from both sides and it looks like you can walk across it. I draw four and a half feet. I can't sail in water you can walk in. I got real nervous. In fact, I got so nervous, I turned around to find another way in, even though I just knew "Dream Catcher", a forty five footer, just went in that way. As we were leaving, we got a call on the radio. They assured us it was deep enough, no matter what it looked like. In fact, it was 15 feet deep - just go through the middle.

With my teeth clenched and waiting for the bump into the sand, we just slid on through with the depth sounder reading 14 feet! Boy, now that we're in clear waters, do we ever have a lot to learn!

The next day we did the tourist thing, visiting the Fort and seeing the sights. Nellie wanted fish for supper and I took a bottle of wine someone had given us long ago and went shopping. Some fishermen anchored nearby agreed to trade a couple fish for the wine. They started tossing fish in my dinghy until I had to say stop! We'd eat fish for a long time.

One more day and we set out for the Florida Keys. We were on a schedule, even if we were cruising. We needed to get to Islamorada, pick up our mail, get supplies and get moving. The next afternoon we anchored behind Plantation Key. After a couple days of shopping and stocking we'd be attacking the Gulf Stream. Jason would be showing up before us if we didn't get a move on.

Copyright 1997
All rights reserved

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