The 116 Summer Trip 2010: Sailing the Florida Keys

Day 1: Key Largo to Rodriguez Key. [Repeat]

Our 41-foot Hunter was called Blue Moon, but we nicknamed it “The Camry,” because on two separate occasions we found ourselves in a situation in which we could sail it just fine… we just couldn’t make it stop.

First day out, we got a late afternoon start because the tides trapped us in the Key Largo Marina. To relieve the boredom of waiting, I arranged to be nearly brained by the anchor of a hanging boat.

In which we almost lose one boat (and I almost die) before we even get out of the marina

Blue Moon was a whole lot bigger than Captain Rhoad’s own boat, a 29-footer (I believe) he keeps on the Chesapeake. So I don’t blame him. He was being forced to get the hang of this gargantuan new boat in a terribly narrow marina channel, in a blasted rush, with the locals yelling at him to hurry up, and at full speed.

This is because, though we had been told we’d be stuck in the marina until 5pm or 6pm waiting for the high tide to open an exit, no one had mentioned that the fuel station, which we had to visit before setting off and which lay just a few hundred yards down at the end of the marina, would be closing at 5pm.

By 4:30pm, we had just started loading our gear and a week’s worth of food onto the boats (most of it was still in the parking lot, being staged and divided between the Blue Moon and our other boat, a 36-foot Pearson called Stargazer), when someone from the fuel station wandered up and warned us of their imminent closure.

We started frantically slinging gear on board both boats. In the process, some people’s personal gear ended up on the wrong boat, other bits were misplaced for the duration, and a few pieces managed to get lost entirely.

Every five minutes or so, the fuel jerks would swing by to remind us of the ticking clock in nasty tones.

Keep in mind there were only four people on this tip who had any idea what they were doing: Blue Moon had 80-year-old Capt. Rhoad, an old Navy salt, Mark and Stew’s former Scoutmaster, and the only one of the lot of us who actually owned his own large sailboat. It also had a hugely under-qualified First Mate, me, who has been sailing precisely once before.

Stargazer had Captain Mark Weiss (who has owned boats) and his able First Mate Stew Lee, both veterans of at least three previous weeklong scout sailing trips.

Stargazer also had Scotty, who has been sailing a few times, but until this trip never really bothered paying attention.

Blue Moon had the Rosenbergs (Ian and his dad Stuart), who do know how to sail, but – with all due respect — are used to puttering around lakes and bays in one-man Lasers, not taking on the open ocean in a 41-foot sloop. I was mightily happy to have them aboard my boat, but they had a steep learning curve as well.

Nearly all of the other boys were willing and eager to help, but they were, to a man, all landlubbing newbies to whom all the boat terminology (and protocol and operation) was a totally foreign tongue, so at first they got more in the way than anything,

So, while the boys finished flinging food and packs helter-skelter below decks, the officers hurriedly unhooked both boats’ various umbilicals and stowed them (water hoses, power lines).

We cast off the Stargazer before its entire crew was aboard, and then quickly cast off Blue Moon in such a hurry we left Ian behind on the dock, still holding one of the mooring lines. He looked a little confused at first, then hurt when he realized we’d abandoned him. He threw up his arms disbelievingly, and said “What?…” Then he grumbled “Aw, man!,” and started coiling his line and turning to trudge up the marina toward the fuel station to meet us.

I probably would have done more to help him, but at the time was busy diving across the deck for my iPhone. In the rush, I had absentmindedly slipped it into my shirt pocket, which was dumb. When I tripped on the jib sheet running below the rail and my chest scraped along the cable of the mast stay, it ripped the button off my shirt pocket and the phone went flying, skittering across the deck. I flung myself after it and managed to snatch it just as it started going over the lip headed for the drink. I secured it in my pants’ zippered cargo pocket, reminding myself later to find my pack in the pile below and dig out the water-resistant cellphone case I’d bought for this trip.

Someone had told Captain Rhoad it might be easiest to back down the marina to the fuel docks, but that wasn’t working, so — with giant fishing charter boats returning every five minutes or so, each dangling 40 to 50 paying passengers form the gunwales and pretty much hogging the marina channel – the captain tried to turn the huge, ungainly, unfamiliar boat around in the tight space.

I was up on the bow, having cast off the last mooring line and stranded poor Ian, standing on call to fend and gingerly rubbing the raw rash on my knee I had just gotten from diving for my phone, when someone suddenly shouted “Reid!” with urgent terror.

I spun around to see an anchor aimed at my skull, about a foot away and closing rapidly. My brain was still trying to work out what an anchor could possibly be doing at eye level, but luckily for my brain my body reacted without awaiting instructions.

I buckled my knees and fell backward, just managing to duck the speeding anchor. At the same time, I reached up my arms to catch the prow of the boat to which the anchor was attached. My brain finally caught up.

“Ah,” it surmised. “This must be that small boat I noticed earlier that was hanging on the far side of the marina.” (Many people with houses on a permanent slip and smallish boats have winch mechanisms to hoist their craft up into a suspended version of dry dock; it keeps the barnacles off).

That sorted out, my brain also starting issuing orders.

I screamed “Reverse! Reverse!” back toward the Captain and did a pull-up on the prow of the other boat to I could lift my legs, plant my feet against the marina’s far wall, and try vainly to push a 41-foot boat backwards.

Luckily, the Captain was quick and slammed us into reverse. This stopped our forward motion. Then I saw another problem, one even worse than hitting the marina wall, and screamed back, “Stop! Stop! ALL STOP! RIGHT NOW!”

The anchor-studded prow of the other boat was now fully cantilevered over the bow of Blue Moon, and it had neatly inserted itself between our mainmast stays and the jib, which was furled and trailing its two taught sheets back to the cockpit. In other words, it was a spider web of steel cables, ropes, and masts, and thrust into the middle of it was the enormous end of another boat, bristling with the pointy parts of the anchor. And we were drifting.

There was only inches of clearance on either side of the invading boat, and with the engine churning, current flowing, and tiller spinning, all it would take was the tiniest nudge in the wrong direction for the prow of the other boat to careen across our decks and rip the rigging right off our boat.

In fact, as I watched, ineffectually pushing with all my might against it, our outer stay slowly rode up along the side of the hanging boat and, with the telltale twang of a braided steel cable, sheared off a few inches of paint.

At that moment, Stuart Rosenberg and our crew captain, Jon Pfeil, materialized next to me and threw themselves against the other boat. Using every last ounce of available strength, issuing strangled shouts back to the captain of “Left!,” “Now back,” and, “No, Right! Right! Right!”, inch by inch we were able to push ourselves off while micromanaging the direction, allowing us to unthread the other boat’s prow from our rigging.

We got a round of disdainful applause from the Stargazer as we pulled up too moor alongside her at the fuel docks.

[to be sung] Sailing, sailing, knowing we cannot stop…

Fully fueled, we still had to wait the arrival of high tide to get out — the Blue Moon pulled a draft of five feet to Stargazer’s four, so we always played it safe – so we left Mark and Oliver on the boats and trooped up the road to the Circle K for giant, insulated 64-oz. plastic mugs of soda, not fully realizing the irony of buying a refillable mug from a chain store when we would spend the rest of the week at sea, far away from any Circle K (the Stargazer crew ended up stringing their mugs into a garland in their main cabin).

Finally, we motored out of the long marina channel, made it to open waters, and raised our sails. Soon, the captain let Jon take the wheel, and I plugged my iPod into the sound system to blast the main theme from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack. We were grinning and excited. All was well.

We had sailed — pretty much at random, just to get the hang of the boat — a grand total of maybe 90 minutes before the setting sun and gathering clouds nudged us to turn south to head toward the lee of tiny Rodriguez Key to anchor. Stargazer had already made the same decision, and was maybe 15 minutes ahead of us.

As we sailed into trickier, shallower waters on the lee of the island, we turned on the engine, lowered the main mast and started furling in the jib.

However, as soon as we had the jib furled, something went WHANG! and the jib unfurled itself again, suddenly and violently, yanking the sheets out of the surprised boys’ hands.

In the whipping wind of a gale that simultaneously came down, those free sheets (the lines used to furl and unfurl the jib) snaked wildly around and quickly wrapped around each other to formed a complex Gordian knot. Just then, the sun disappeared and the rain began slashing down in torrents.

As the boat pitched to and fro in the five-foot seas of the gale, Captain Rhoad tried to keep the ship in irons (pointing directly into the wind so your sails don’t fill with it and you aren’t fighting the wind – a fight you will always lose). This kept the jib flapping as Jon Pfeil and I inched our way to the foredeck in the white fury.

We braced ourselves against the deck and the mainstay and used a free line to capture the snaking, tangled, wildly flapping jib sheets and then wrapped the line around a stay to give us some leverage.

We took turns hauling with all our might on the far end of the tangled jib sheets in order to get a tiny bit of slack into the line. This would allow the other person to attack one layer of the multifarious knot. We switched off whenever the slack-producer’s fingers gave out and arms went numb from fatigue. We’d make a tiny bit of headway, then an errant gust of wind would blow the jib, yank the sheet out of our hands, and pull it taught — and the knot tight – again.

After about 40 minutes, with the help of a plumber’s wrench, we finally got the two sheets untangled, which would at least allow us to control and trim the jib. We stumbled back to the cockpit, exhausted, fingers cramped and hands trembling, forearm muscles aching from the unaccustomed exertion. I now know why Popeye has such engorged forearms.

The problem now was, there was no way to furl the jib. That “WHANG!” we had heard turned out to be the jib furling line disengaging and coming clean out of the furling assembly at the base of the mast. It was now nothing more than a spare length of rope.

The Captain and I sat at the bow as we headed out to deeper waters, our legs dangling off the prow and repeatedly dunked into the oncoming (and surprisingly warm) waves as the boat crashed through them. We poked around the furling drum with flashlights and were only able to determine that it was a wonderfully engineered device with a self-contained spring apparatus… and that there was no way to take it apart and fix it without the right kind of tools.

Given the dark and the storm and the wind, the captain didn’t want to risk lowering the whole jib assembly with the halyard, since it would require some hand be up at the bow, gathering in the sail as it came down. One errant gust of wind could easily billow the sail, yank it overboard, and sweep into the dark seas any hapless scouts who were up there trying to control it.

So, instead, we made the only decision we could.

We simply kept sailing.

All night long.

How to turn landlubbing teens into hardened sailors with our patented 10-hour crash course

We taught boys how to tack with the jib, warning the crew with a shout of “Coming about!” then starting the tack with a call of “Hard to lee!”

Once the boat came across the wind, the man at the wheel would yell “Break!,” which was the signal for the deckhand on the now-leeward side to crank in his jib sheet furiously while the deckhand on the other side let his line out for slack. It was a simple, but precise maneuver, and we now had 12 hours to practice it.

We spent the night pacing back and forth in the safe, deep waters, continually passing and re-passing Rodriguez Key, behind which the Stargazer was affixed to a mooring ball, its crew engaged in such soft, landlubby activities as “eating dinner” and “sleeping.”

Luckily, the gale soon abated, the clouds parted, and our perfect heading turned out to be: the moon. So that’s where I set my sail. I kept the full moon at my mast for a mile or so, then tacked and kept it at my stern.

The night was filled with stars and salt air. The only sounds were the gentle rush of water along the boat, occasional luffing flap of the sail or soft snap of a line in the wind, and the creaking voice that boats have always had, whether made of wood or Fiberglass. Looking from west to southwest across the velvet sky, we could see Venus, Mars, and Saturn strung out in a line like gems on the pearl necklace of the Milky Way.

Somewhere around midnight, the Captain and Ian’s watch (Anthony and Oliver) took over, and Stuart stayed up with them, while Jon and I went below to fail to sleep for a few hours. The younger boys were all asleep on their feet, even the ones on watch, and had to be roused when it came time to tack–or, when eager Oliver was at the wheel, jibe. (Oliver also quickly perfect the technique of steering with his feet so he could use his hands to hold his book, a flashlight wedged between his chin and shoulder. This sharp attention to his duties might explain why he jibed so much.)

Around 4am, Jon and I roused his watch’s two deckhands, Gunner and Pretsch, and came back above deck to continue sailing for the moon until I saw Aurora appear on the faintly lightening horizon. We watched brooding Jupiter rise in the southeast — accompanied, incredibly, by tiny Uranus, shining bright silver high in the sky.

Finally, the sun came up to warm our soaked and tired bones.

Now that it was daylight we were ready to make headway, but it was still only daybreak. So we paced past Rodriguez Key a few more times, glaring jealously at a gently bobbing Stargazer, waiting for them to wake up and debating how early was too early to call, considering the relatively cushy night they’d had.

(The best we’d accomplished in terms of comfort all night was to dash below to the galley every once in a while, grab a handful of roasted chicken, and carry it topside to stuff into our mouths in the dark as we sailed. It all felt very primal and manly, if you overlooked the fact that the birds had all been nicely pre-roasted by the grocery store and neatly packaged in plastic containers.)

Seeking the Stargazer

Stargazer finally radioed us a good morning, and we told them to get a move on, since all our scouts were now experienced sailors with 14 hours of hard sailing under their belts, whereas their crew was still comprised mostly of passengers who had merely taken a leisurely 90-minute pleasure cruise the evening before.

They pleaded they had yet to eat breakfast. On Blue Moon, we exchanged greasy grins, our chins still smeared with chicken bits, and called them all sorts of synonyms for sissy. Still, we hollered down below for someone on the other watch to figure out where the bagels and cream cheese had been tossed the day before. (The bagels were under a bench; the cream cheese was, of all the miracles, actually in the tiny fridge.)

Finally, on our umpteenth southwest passage past Rodriguez Key (we had altered our pacing a bit to put us on our eventual desired heading), we saw the Stargazer raising its mainsail.

We gave a whoop and raised our own, thankful that we could continue on our current heading without having to turn around yet again and wear our weary trough in the seas even deeper.

We radioed them to hurry up and catch up, and continued sailing merrily across the sun-dazzled waters, our sails and hearts filled with the second wind of a new day and an actual destination: Channel Five and its 65′ bridge, which would allow us and our 64′ mast to nip under it to gain the leeward side of the Florida Keys, where we could drop anchor in calm waters away from the wind and finally figure out what was wrong with our !@#$%ing jib. It would take us all day to get there, but we could make it.

After 15 minutes of making great time, we still hadn’t seen Stargazer come from behind the rapidly receding Rodriguez Key. Couldn’t raise them on the radio, either. I gave them five minutes. Then five minutes more.

Finally, wearily, I called for a tack and we turned around, yet again, to head back the way we had come and see what was going on.

Time to break Stargazer, too

Turns out Stargazer had run over its own mooring ball as they attempted to sail away, and its thick rope had gotten hopelessly tangled in their propeller. You may be picturing a propeller at the back of a boat, but that’s only on the outboard motors of dinghies or on the screws of a massive ship. On a sailboat, the prop is more toward the middle of the boat, and the rudder is actually behind it — that way, you can make use of the wash created by the prop and flowing over the rudder to turn the boat much more quickly.

Of course, putting the prop down there under the middle of the keel does make things a bit tricky if you have to get to it while the boat is still in the water.

During their radio silence since breakfast, Stew and Mark had spent the past hour diving under their boat with knives, trying to saw through the five-inch braided line and free their boat.

They had finally gotten a smaller line untangled so they could raise the thicker mooring line just high enough in the water to hack at it while still at snorkel level. This was key, because now they didn’t have to dive down, locate the mooring line in the murky water, and have time only to give it one or two saws before needing to head back up for air.

However, this was not before the pitching and heaving of the boat overhead had done its damage to the intrepid captain and his first mate. Banging them repeatedly on the head was one thing. Infinitely worse were the barnacles lining the bottom of the boat, which flayed ribbons of skin off their backs and gouged deep cuts into their arms.

After they finally got free (and being good Boy Scouts, after they retied the mooring ball to its line, which was now about five feet shorter) and were back on board and underway, they had to institute a “blood detail” to keep swabbing down the decks, now slippery with their blood, while others swabbed and treated their wounds to staunch further bleeding.

We had been at sea roughly 15 hours, and already had one broken boat, two injured officers, and one thoroughly exhausted crew. Also, our main cabin was filled with chicken parts that had been flung around all night.

Ah, sailing.