Of Horses and Sailboats

Upon our return from Key West, we took the first opportunity to escape from Dinner Key. We got back to Madge on a Monday, provisioned on Tuesday, then waited for the weather to improve just enough so we could leave, which was on Thursday. It would’ve been better to wait another day until Friday, but I was determined to leave. Winds were supposed to have dropped to 10-15 knots, but were still in the 15-18 knot range when we left, out of the northwest. Biscayne Bay was supposed to have a light chop (surface condition of short waves), according to the forecast. This seemed reasonable, since the mainland would prevent the wind from having a long distance across the water to rile up the surface against us. But such was not the case.

The wind was mostly behind us, so the waves in the Bay – which I would put in the 2-3 ft range (much worse than light chop) – were catching us astern. It was a very bumpy and rolly ride. I should’ve at least pulled out the jib to steady Madge against the wind and waves, but didn’t. It was a miserable day. The winds continued in the 16-20 knot range, and we caught several gusts up to 24 and 25, all the way into Tarpon Basin in Key Largo.

imageAs we motored down Biscayne Bay, the sailboat pictured at left fell in behind us, neither gaining nor fading. My AIS receiver identified the boat as SV Skimmer, so we hailed her on the radio. Skimmer was heading to Largo also, and as we discussed potential anchorages, they decided to also stop in Tarpon Basin. We stopped at a marina in Blackwater Sound to top off Madge’s fuel, so Skimmer beat us to Tarpon Basin. We pulled in around 4 pm and anchored a few boat lengths away from her. They invited us over for sundowners, so we dropped the motor onto the dinghy and headed over to officially meets some new friends. Over drinks and appetizers, we discussed our respective cruising histories and current plans. Skimmer was waiting for a weather window to cross to the Bahamas. On the other hand, we were trying to figure out what to do next, now that we no longer had any timelines to keep.

Skimmer is about the same size and weight as Madge, so the two boats should have similar sailing characteristics. I asked Wayne, Skimmer’s captain, if he’d motor-sailed from Miami to Largo. “No,” he said. Skimmer had stayed right behind Madge all day sailing under jib alone with no motor, while we had burned fuel and breathed exhaust – not even using the jib to steady the boat. When he asked me why I had not used the sails, I was struck with the realization that I’d been afraid to do it. As we talked further, we figured out that I had not really sailed Madge in over two years. She had sat on her mooring ball in the St. Marys River while I wrapped up my landside job, or been in the boatyard as I installed new equipment prior to the cruise. I had not sailed. And since leaving on our cruise, we had traveled over 400 miles “in the ditch,” since weather or timing prevented us from doing any of our trip segments offshore. I had lost the feel of my boat, forgotten the sort of conditions she could handle, and was afraid of the wind and sea conditions we encountered in Biscayne Bay. I knew how Madge handled while motoring, but was reluctant to let her be a sailboat. I had lost my nerve.

Wayne was a good therapist for me. He was only a little older than I am, and had even had some similar experiences. He had also gotten timid at some point as age and wisdom made him more aware of his vulnerabilities, which made him back off on his sailing style. The bottom line, though, as you would expect, was that I needed to “get back on the horse.”

We stayed in Tarpon Basin for several days. On the third day, Skimmer headed out to catch her window to the Bahamas. We wished her a safe voyage.

We stayed in Largo.

I have a lot to think about.