We had been waiting for favorable weather to make the passage from Port St. Joe, Florida to the Dry Tortugas, some 400 miles to the south. It was December and cold fronts from the frozen North had been sweeping over the area for weeks, bringing storms and strong winds. After a week of waiting and preparing, the weather was looking better and we announced our intention of making the passage to our friends at the marina.
It didn’t take long to discover that we were the only ones planning on leaving. Most considered our “favorable weather” to be iffy at best. Another sailor recommended that we consider sailing closer to land for the duration of our passage, that way if we wanted, we could go in and anchor for the a night and rest. Thankfully we took his advice and altered our planned course so that we would be about 20 miles offshore for the majority of our passage.
As a sanity check, I consulted with an experienced sailing captain in the harbor regarding the weather and charts. He proved to be a valuable resource. He agreed that the weather forecast didn’t look too bad to him. He liked that we were planning to sail close to shore so we could receive VHF weather forecast and rest for the night if we chose. One piece of wisdom he gave me was this: “the discomfort you feel standing at the dock wishing you were out in the ocean is much better than the discomfort you feel while you are out in the ocean wishing you were standing on the dock”.
We were sure to have the boat ready by five p.m. the evening before we were set to leave so we could relax. I played poker with the friends that I had made and Sydney wrote. That evening I didn’t sleep well, and I woke up at four a.m., an hour before my alarm. We dawned our sailing gear, and fired up the engine. We motored up to the the fuel dock where the pump out station was self serve. While pumping out our crap the seal between the tank and the pump out hose was momentarily broken and I was sprayed with an aerosol mist of holding tank fluid, what a great way to start. I wondered if this was an indicator of how the rest of the passage would go.
After wiping all of the questionable particles off of me, I got back in the boat and off we went. It was just after sunrise and the wind was fresh. We hoisted the sails and beat into the wind. During the next few hours we rounded Cape San Blas in a dying wind. Heading South, we ran the motor for a few hours to ensure that we cleared the San Blas shoals before nightfall. As the sun neared the horizon, the wind freshened and we were able to turn the motor off. The forecast for the night was calling for 15-20 knots of breeze, so I took advantage of the calm weather and remaining light to get ready for what I knew would be a long night.
Sunset brought dolphins, which captivated Sydney for over an hour; I don’t think she had any idea of what we were getting ourselves into. I knew I had much work to do, so on I went. Preparing food, lashing things down, getting the jack lines and harnesses ready, there was an endless list of things to do. Just as promised by the forecast, as night fell on us, so did the wind. Just after sunset, the breeze began to steadily increase in strength until by eight p.m., it was blowing a force 5 (20-25 mph wind, 6 ft. waves). I had shortened sail to a single reefed main and a significantly furled genoa, maybe 30% showing. As time progressed, the wind gradually increased in magnitude and I was continually thinking about shortening sail. The deck was intermittently awash from breaking waves as we sailed a broad reach towards our destination. Every time we would surf down a wave we would hit around 8 knots (9 mph), and crash into the next wave, causing water to cascade over the bow, and down the railing.
Sitting next to our offshore life raft in the cockpit I was wearing a full goretex suit, with ocean boots, an inflatable life jacket, EPIRB and multitool in my pocket, knife easy to get to. The spray from the waves was constantly spattering me with heavy warm splashes. While on deck I remained tethered to the boat. Sydney was below, tucked in a corner, staying warm and dry. I mentally readied myself for the task of putting the second reef in the mainsail. It was now blowing a force 6 (25-30 mph, ~8 ft waves). I shouted down to Sydney to let her know what was going on “I am going forward to put the second reef in the main, the wind is continuing to strengthen. We are still doing ok, but we need to reduce sail”.
On all fours and with a firm grip on some part of the boat I made my way from the cockpit to the cabin top where I could access the mainsail. We were doing between 8 and 9 miles per hour, which is screaming fast for our boat, and I felt that I was riding a bull. Several times, I had to temporarily suspend my activity because it became so rough, that all I could do was hang on. Laying mostly on my back, relying on my tether to keep me in place, I put the second reef in the sail and made my way back to the cockpit. I furled in the jib to where it had less than 4’ showing. This slowed our speed a little but we were still doing 6.5 knots (7.5 mph), which is a great speed for the boat.
At this point we were around 90 nautical miles (100 land miles) from shore, with no obstructions anywhere near us. The only other boat within visibility was a sailboat that we had been sailing near for the past few hours. A pair of professional captains were transporting the boat South. It was reassuring to know that we were not alone.
While reefing, I was 100% focused on the sails, looking up most of the time. When everything was done, I had a chance to look around and was surprised to see that we were now within several hundred yards of the other sailing vessel! I pointed this out to Sydney and she voiced her discomfort. I reassured her that we weren’t going to collide. They were heading further south and our paths diverged as we watched them sail out of view. By midnight the breeze had stabilized at force 5, and the seas evened out a bit, and our going became much more comfortable, although still rough with the deck frequently awash.
Laying in the cockpit at 2 am I took a good look around, checked the chart plotter and AIS. No foreseeable hazards until afternoon tomorrow. I let myself close my eyes for a short nap. I awoke after what felt like 5 minutes and looked at my watch. Yikes, it was four a.m. and two whole hours had passed. I checked over the sails visually, the wind had not changed, we were still doing around 6 knots (7 mph) and the boat was sailing great under autopilot. There still were no foreseeable hazards and land was far away so again I laid down and again, two hours passed.
Around six a.m., I could feel that daylight was near. I could start to see a faint glow coming from the Eastern sky. The wind was now slowly diminishing to 15 to 20 knots, while the waves became fairly uniform at about six feet. Sunrise attracted Sydney back on deck and we sat together mesmerized by the rhythm of the passing swells. From far off we could see something jumping from the waves, racing closer to us; Dolphins!
They came from far away, from nearly all directions to come play with the boat as she surfed up and down the large rolling waves. As the dolphins neared the boat I was amazed as we watched them shoot out from the crest of a wave to fall gracefully six to eight feet into the trough. One by one as they caught up with the boat they all joined in and escorted patches for nearly an hour, there must have been twenty of them. At this point the waves were still sizable and Sydney and I were content to sit and watch.
During the day, the wind continued to drop to around 10 knots, but the swell remained. Sydney was on watch and let me go below and rest. I remember trying to sleep, but my mind was far too engaged in the situation to allow any real rest.
Sunset had morale high, and land not yet in sight. Rather than try to come into port during the night, we opted to continue heading south, parallel to the western Florida coast. Shortly after sunset the wind clocked to the southwest. Since we were trying to go directly south this meant that we had to beat 30 degrees into the waves. This made for some pretty uncomfortable sailing, all night the boat pitched and shuttered abruptly. Everything in the cabin was either already wet, or in the process of getting wet as we had discovered that we had water coming in the boat from several places, none of which being life threatening but annoying none the less.
Thankfully, the wind was not as strong as the previous night and was blowing between force 4 and 5 and the waves were three to five feet. Patches sailed at 6.5 knots (7.5 mph) into the weather quite well with a single reefed mainsail and full 135% genoa. Patches was at her best, but her crew was not. Sydney and I were both made seasick, as the boat bobbed up and down, smashing into the waves. It was too rough to cook any appreciable food so I set on making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This was no easy task as I had to lean into the counter until my feet were moving off the floor onto the walls. While applying jelly to the bread, Patches hit a particularly large wave and everything went flying across the galley. The bread split into several pieces as it cascaded off the the walls and ceiling and I fell to the leeward side of the hull and boinked my coccyx, abrading the skin on my rear end.
After I fell, I kinda moaned and went limp as I waited for sensations to arise to let me know how badly I had hurt myself. Sydney was awoken and nearly screamed as she saw what looked like blood all over the ceiling and walls. Thankfully, it was only jelly and I wasn’t hurt bad at all. At this point it was clear that we didn’t want to sail all the way to Marco Island in one shot; we needed rest and food.
Out came the iPad and I scoured the charts and the Active Captain data looking for a good anchorage. I found an inlet called Pass-A-Grille Channel in St. Petersburg and we immediately set our course.
Before the sun came up, the moon came up, bright and low on the horizon. I looked up from the iPad and all I saw was a big bright white light dead in front of us. I thought it was a buoy or a ship. I grabbed the helm and moved it hard over to change our course to avoid a collision. As I did this, I realized that my unknown obstruction was just the moon.
Being alone on deck this night was very eerie and loud, there were waves spattering the hood of my jacket making ticking noises, like rain on a car windshield. The motor of the auto helm was whining as it moved the wheel back and forth. The wheel had a faint but consistent squeak, the boat creaked audibly in a few spots, and the keel or propeller had a fairly high pitched hum that was easy to hear below decks. I knew that I wasn’t going crazy, but after nearly 48 hours awake my mind had begun to interpret all of these noises as voices. I felt as if Patches was talking to me, mumbling a word or two at a time. I was plainly aware that there were no actual voices to be heard and that my mind was simply hearing things wrong, and my perception of reality was altered in a way.
By this time it was after five a.m. and I started asking Sydney to come on deck with me, knowing that sunrise would be soon. As nautical twilight came, so did the crab pots. In Florida, crab pots are everywhere. Sometimes they are really hard to see. A small, softball sized styrofoam ball is attached to a rope that goes down to a crab pot. Patches has a fin keel and rudder and is vulnerable to catching stray lines, so Sydney and I stayed vigilant.
During the next few hours, the wind abated and we guided Patches into her snug anchorage in St. Petersburg. I remember setting all of our clothes out to dry in the warm Florida sun. After sailing a linear distance of 220 nautical miles (250 miles) over the course of 50 hours, I stuffed my face with as much food as I could get my hands on, and passed out.