Wind and Fire
By Tom Neale, 1/26/2006
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Busting down the Indian River in Florida with a 50 knot tail breeze was enough fun for one day. We didn’t even need to put the sails up. We would have known it was time to reef when the kayak went airborne and blew off the boat, caught only by its painter which got tangled under a pile of much heavier deck junk. Little did we know there was more fun to come, of a very different nature, at the end of the day.
The front had roared through the night before, leaving our anchor chain tight, stretching the snubbing line like a high tech bungee cord. It had been one of those nights when you take a good look around just before you go to bed, thinking that you might wake up again far away down stream dragging your anchor through the mud like a piece of flat iron in a tub of grease. But we awoke in the same place, not an inch aft of where we’d put ‘er down.
We had some high rise fixed bridges and some low opening bridges to deal with. The first weren’t a problem. You just scoot on under these, looking only for things blowing off them or painters’ tarps or lines dangling down whipping in the wind as if anxious to grab your stick and pull it out. The opening bridges we worried about. Sometimes these don’t open in high winds because they’re afraid of damage. I’ll never forget the Ben Sawyer Bridge just north of Charleston SC that was blown around like a top and dropped askew on its pedestal, one end high in the air, the other end almost in the water. But that was Hugo and that was years ago. The bridges this day were all bascule bridges, not the older swing bridges that are so prone to being blown about. And the bridge tenders all knew what we were dealing with and opened promptly. I heard one lady tell one bridge operator that she didn’t think she could stop and wait even if she had to. The operator said, “Well, let’s not try to find out. I’m aswinging ‘er now.”
Chez Nous has a big wide fat stern and a fully enclosed cockpit. Her 165 hp Perkins and 4 blade prop give her plenty of power, but even so we had to watch to be sure we weren’t being blown off course in the sometimes very narrow channels. The Indian River is wide but not deep. Much of the ICW channel is dredged, and the deeper water is distinguishable only by aids to navigation that sometimes aren’t easily seen in spume and spray. These days it’s worse, because many have been temporarily replaced by small floating cans and nuns. When the channel can go from 8 feet to 3 feet in less than a moment’s travel, you need to be careful. When a 50 knot gust wants to kick your stern around, you need to be extra careful. And then there’re the inlets.
Anytime the ICW passes the influx of an ocean inlet, strong currents are likely to be rushing across the ICW channel as the water races in from the ocean or out. This does two things. It pushes the bottom about like it’s nothing more than a sand box with a giant kid sitting there with a shovel moving sand at his whim. It also pushes the boats crossing the current like they’re chips of wood on the Niagara. Add to that the wind, and you’ve got some fun steering. While I would be happy to have aids to navigation about every 20 feet in these places, they’re often very far apart. This, I assume, is because it’s hard to know when you plant them where the shoal is going to be tomorrow, and sometimes they just get pushed out of the way.
The Crossroads is one of the more difficult of these inlet/ICW junctions. This is where the St. Lucie River floods out of the heartland of Florida and spreads into the Atlantic over a broad delta of shoals. The course across, for ICW travelers, runs through an exceptionally beautiful but wide expanse of water. The markers there can quickly become confusing. This is because, in part, of the distances between them, but more because the channel for the river and the channel for the ICW cross each other and each has it’s own set of navigational aids. If you’re running the ICW and head to a river aid, you may quickly find yourself in very shallow water and very deep doo doo. On a normal day, when you ground on a shoal, the current may mightily push you into even shallower water before you have a chance to say, “Aw shucks.” If the tide’s dropping, the plot thickens like a bowl of gravy set out side to cool on a February day in Alaska. Before a tow help can reach you’re probably half way over on your side and stuck for around 6 hours when the tide’s rising again.
We swept into the Crossroads like the proverbial bat out of hell. I was gripping the wheel and Mel was outside gripping the binoculars, trying to be sure we were heading for the right markers. Even as we found them, we had to keep looking astern, as well as ahead, to keep ourselves from being swept out of the channel by the swift current of the rapidly falling tide. Planting a 53 foot motorsailer into the dirt isn’t the stuff dreams are made of. Mel finally found one of the more difficult sets—the ones on the southern side that were always hard to see, especially at dusk, because of their backdrop of foliage. Mel picked them out of the trees and told me, “You see where that smoke is coming up in the background, they’re just to the west of that.” The large column of smoke made a great landmark.
But getting to the other side and up into the quiet cut of the ICW there, gentling winding through lush tropical shores, was the stuff dreams are made of—and soon we were there. Not only had we done the day without getting into trouble, we were actually going to make it to our planned anchorage for the night. We’d passed up two anchorages already. One had boats dragging all over the place, and the other probably had hurricane debris on the bottom. We had gotten little sleep the night before because the gusts had kept bowling the boat around and we’d been checking for signs of dragging. Finally we were going to get a good night’s sleep—one which we needed and deserved.
There was one more bridge to go, and the operator made it quick and easy for us. I asked him after we’d cleared, “What’s all that smoke I see ahead?”
“I don’t know, he said. I saw it yesterday too. I’d have thought there would have been something about it on the news but there hasn’t. I guess it’s one of those controlled burns they do sometimes.”
We anchored well to the north of the smoke, which was billowing up from a wide swath on the western shore of the anchorage, thinking it would soon be gone. When we turned on the local news on the TV at around 6:30 and we found differently. Despite warnings to the public for days that fires were not to be lit because of dry conditions and high winds, some local park officials had decided to do a controlled burn. You know how bureaucrats always know more than everybody else. The fire was now roaring out of control and as night darkened we could see the fires underneath. It was like we had anchored off the shores of the River Styx passing through Hell. And it was too dark now to easily move and find another anchorage, even if one were available.
The winds were blowing it down to the south (directly toward a group of houses that must have cost several million bucks apiece) and we were to its north. The news people on the TV were saying the people in those houses had bags packed, ready to go. We weren’t supposed to worry because fires don’t burn upwind. But sometimes they do, if the brush is dry enough and the wind dies a bit. I learned this from my days as a kid when I fought a forest fire or two. So we worried anyway, wondering when this day would end. If it burned up our way, hot embers and sparks would likely be raining down on our deck, sails, and canvas. We would move, but it wouldn’t be an easy thing to do given the circumstances.
But the night wore on as we watched, and slowly the fires receded, keeping their distance to the south. By next mid day we were anchored in beautiful ocean waters which had rushed fresh into the inlet from the Gulf Stream. The tropical sky held no more smoke—only blue and a few white clouds. We’d traded a good day for a bad one. And still the next day found us scooting out the inlet to the beautiful freedom of the ocean again. Cruising is a lot of things to us, but it’s seldom boring.
Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale