June 16, 2005
According to Euclidean geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That's usually how we plot our course when we're planning a passage, choosing to ignore the earth's curvature and the notion of great circle routes (which make navigation unnecessarily complicated for the distances we’re typically sailing). There's an appealing elegance to laying a straight edge alongside points "A" and "B" and joining the two with a pencil line. Unfortunately, this illusion is quickly destroyed as soon as we get underway and our actual track begins wandering all over the chart like Moses searching for the Promised Land. We know where we want to end up, but we just can't seem to get the pointy end of the boat headed in that direction. That was our problem recently when we sailed from Mexico to Florida.
We had been in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, for Eileen to perform at the Regata Del Sol Al Sol, the annual race from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Isla (see our last entry, "Racers and Cruisers"). Our next performance commitment wasn't until almost a month later in Annapolis. In between the two gigs, we planned to haul the boat in Florida, leaving it there for the summer. A late spring passage from Isla Mujeres, on the northeast corner of the Yucatan peninsula, to the Florida Keys should be a piece of cake. The current in the Yucatan Channel wants to take you to Florida whether or not that's your intention and, with a little luck, the wind will be from the southeast and on your beam.
Right after the last regatta party was over, many of the boats in the racing fleet began heading back to St. Pete. The conditions didn't look great to us: northeast winds in the 20 knot range -- pretty well right on the nose if we were going to follow that straight pencil line on the chart. We suspected that the ones who were leaving had work commitments or other obligations to meet. Most of them had gotten beat up on the race down; maybe they were getting used to being punished. We, on the other hand, did not have any immediate deadlines to worry about and we usually go to great lengths to avoid pain and suffering. We decided to wait.
After a couple of days the wind had subsided to 10 to 15 knots; it was still blowing from the northeast, but was forecast to clock more to the east and even a bit south of east. The long term forecast showed little change. "Well," David said, "it doesn't sound like it's too bad out there, it might just take us a bit longer to get to the Keys because we won't be able to do it on a single tack. We might as well go."
Eileen, who has heard David's predictions on a number of occasions before, got out the seasickness meds.
Everything started out fine, but rather than shifting more to the east, the wind gradually backed to the north. Just as we encountered the current in the channel, the wind picked up. Soon we were trucking along at eight or nine knots -- unfortunately, in the wrong direction. The current was sweeping us into the Bay of Campeche. "If this keeps up, we'll make our landfall in Texas," David said. "Let's tack."
On the opposite tack our speed plummeted to barely three knots and, despite the fact our bow was pointed towards Cuba, we were now on our way to Louisiana. "We're stuck in some sort of eddy here," David said. "We'll have to motorsail across the channel until we get into the main part of the current that will take us into the Florida Straits."
For the next 24 hours, we crawled across the Yucatan Channel, alternating between sailing wildly off course and motorsailing moderately off course. We never found the current that was supposed to take us to Florida. The latest weather forecast predicted further strengthening of the winds and mounting seas. When we were about 50 miles off the northwest coast of Cuba, David checked the fuel level and announced, "We don't have enough diesel to continue like this all the way to the Keys, especially if the wind picks up. Let's hide out in Cuba until conditions improve."
Two days after leaving Isla Mujeres, we ducked through Cuba's barrier reef at Pasa Roncadora and dropped the anchor in a quiet, mangrove-lined bay; we purposefully chose a spot several miles from the nearest settlement. The wind outside began to howl. "What if we're stuck here for a week or more?" Eileen moaned. "We won't have enough time to get up to Annapolis."
David checked the fridge. "What's worse is we'll run out of fresh food."
On cue, we heard someone call, "Hola!" We clambered up the companionway to see a most unlikely vessel approaching us. Three fishermen were rowing a raft constructed of rubber inner tubes decked over with scraps of wood. "Hay pescado?" Eileen asked.
"Si, si," they answered. The fellow at the bow opened a deck box filled with fish and lobster. We pointed to a fat hogfish -- good for at least two or three meals -- and offered them three dollars. Sold. David was relieved. "We won't starve," he said as our benefactors pulled away.
The wind continued to pipe up and we put out a second anchor. The next day, a geriatric coast guard patrol boat putt-putted up out of nowhere and hailed us. With the wind blowing, it took several attempts for it to maneuver alongside and raft up. The two polite officers on board were understanding when we explained our plight. We were a hundred miles from the nearest official port of entry. After examining our passports, they told us we could stay where we were until the wind calmed down, as long as we didn't go ashore.
Our Cuban sojourn lasted four days. On the day of our departure, the wind had settled back down into the 10 to 15 knot range, but was still blowing from the northeast. We cleared the reef beyond our anchorage and began tacking across the Florida Straits. According to the straight line on the chart, we were approximately 180 miles from Key West, a distance we would normally cover in less than a day and a half. Zigzagging back and forth, it took us almost a full day longer to make our landfall.
We anchored across the main ship channel from the Key West coast guard station and took the dinghy ashore to check in with Customs and Immigration. After completing the entry formalities and picking up a few groceries, we returned to the boat and checked the charts. We were scheduled to haul out at the Indiantown marina near Lake Okeechobee in less than a week. "We'll never make it in time if we continue sailing to windward along the Keys and up the east coast of Florida," Eileen concluded. "But there's a shortcut. We should be able to save a couple of days if we go due north from here to Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast, and then take the Okeechobee Waterway across to Indiantown."
David pulled out a more detailed chart of the waterway traversing the middle of Florida. "There seems to be just one minor problem," he said. "There's a 49 foot high railway bridge at Port Mayaca. Our mast is 50 feet off the water."
"We'll figure something out," Eileen said.
The sun was setting when we weighed anchor and headed north. We were in Fort Myers the following afternoon. Our trip through the canal was uneventful except for a brief grounding when David insisted on getting up close to a large alligator on a mud bank (David is particularly fond of most reptiles). We enjoyed a free overnight stay at the town dock at La Belle -- a welcome change to the more typical situation in Florida where an increasing number of municipalities are imposing restrictions on transient boaters (we paid $5.50 in Key West just for the privilege of landing our dinghy). On the afternoon of our third day in the waterway, we crossed Lake Okeechobee and arrived at Port Mayaca, only ten miles from Indiantown. We anchored a few boat lengths away from the infamous railway bridge.
"We're almost there," Eileen announced. David examined the bridge looming in front of us. It was an ugly mix of concrete and rusted steel. It looked very solid. "I bet that could do a lot of damage if we hit it," he said.
The marina had told us that someone named Billy would come out in his skiff and, for a fee, help heel our boat over so it would fit under the bridge. Eileen called him up and asked him to come out the next morning. Billy appeared on schedule with his partner Jeannie and a boat full of empty 50 gallon battered plastic barrels. He gave us a long string attached to a bunch of weights to run up the mast on a halyard. With one end of the string at the masthead, the weights at the other end dangled over the side of our boat, a foot or so off the water. "The length of the line is the height of the bridge," Billy explained. "We just have to heel your boat over far enough so the weights touch the water."
Billy and Jeannie strapped seven barrels on to our port side deck and, using a gasoline-powered pump, started filling them with canal water. "Little Gidding" began listing to port. With the last barrel filled, the weights were submerged. Billy told Eileen to fire up the engine and head for the bridge. Plowing ahead at five knots, David began having second thoughts. He noticed that the barrels were leaking rather badly. It also occurred to him that the string might have stretched since the first time it had been deployed. Just as he was about to ask Billy whether he had measured the string at high water or low water, Billy yelled, "You'd better get over here, captain!"
Billy and Jeannie were hanging onto the port shrouds and leaning over the side. David lunged over to join them just as we reached the bridge. All eyes were at the masthead. There was a barely audible "ping" as the tip of the VHF antenna struck the bottom steel beam and flexed out of the way. A second later we were clear.
It took only a few minutes for Billy and Jeannie to empty the barrels and load them back into their skiff. Eileen gave Billy a handful of cash and they were gone.
David wiped the sweat off his glasses. "I hope he invests some of that in a new set of barrels," he said.