Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Timing is Everything

Storm in Key BiscayneWhile I have yet to bridge the gap from Haida Gwaii to my eventual return to Squamish B.C. where I continue my coffee shop job, here is a previous bridge to the gap I left upon leaving Key West as I headed north alone this past summer. It was written months ago, when my writing flowed more naturally and frequently, as I hope it will again someday soon…

Palm Coast, July 19th 2008

… if timing is everything, then my advice to anyone thinking of sailing the east coast of Florida, do NOT go in July. You’ll make it a few miles unaffected, but there are rarely a few daylight hours in a row without a ripping thunderstorm with high winds, blinded visibility, and 'deadly lightning strikes', as the automated voice reading the marine forecast will report.

I was prepared to leave Key Biscayne (beautiful anchorage in a state park, from which the city skyline of Miami is visible) but before turning the engine key, something told me not to go.

And so, I didn’t.

Sometimes I think that ‘feeling’ is protecting me from approaching danger, other times I think it’s the universe directing me to people who’ll enrich my life in one way or another. This was the case in Key Biscayne and I spent a day in the company of some great folks on a motoryacht in No Name Harbor. Sure beats a day alone at sea, no matter how promising the forecast.

Leaving the following morning at sunrise, once in the gulf stream I was averaging 8 kts. The day was uneventful, one rare day without the terrifying thunderstorms with winds of 40kts and fork-lightening that seems to reach down halfway from the moon.

After 6 or 7 hrs on open ocean, I entered a narrow man-made break
in the beach that led back into the Intracoastal Waterway, from which it was only another 2 hrs of motoring to Kim and Mike’s house (folks I previously spoke of, having met them in Bahia Honda in the Keys a couple of weeks before). The next few days became a blur of fine wines, unbelievable food, rotating load after load of laundry, and running errands. It was time for Effie to get her rabies shot, and Kim patiently waited with me, on her precious day off, in line for hours at the local pet store where shots were being given at a fraction of the price of a veterinarian visit. And in search of a new electrical panel, Mike drove me all the way to Fort Lauderdale to the famous Sailorman, an emporium of everything boat related, new and second hand. Every evening was spent relaxing in their saltwater swimming pool, encouraging their golden retriever to do belly-flops into the pool (which he
never grew tired of) watching the palm trees sway and the flicker of distant lightening storms reflecting on the clouds.
After a little less than a week in their company, it was time for me to press onwards. I had booked my flight for British Columbia, and I had a lot of distance to make and a lot of work ahead of me to prepare the boat for what may be months of sitting idle.

Since leaving Key West, I was constantly torn by how exactly I wanted to make my way to Palm Coast. Would I sail on the outside the whole way, present myself with the challenge of my first 3-day non-stop trip alone, or will I play it safe, motor up the waterway and have a safe anchorage every night and get a good nights sleep? Every six hours since July 1st, I was sure I had made a final decision. Yes, go on the outside, you’ll have such a sense of accomplishment. To ‘do the ditch’,
as the waterway is commonly referred to, would be easy, but boring, and I thought I may feel like I was chickening out in a sense. I kept telling myself that people sail all around the world alone, surely I can sail a couple hundred mile by myself. But there are a lot of issues at play; most single-handers have autopilot to keep their course while they doze, and this was a coastal trip, in heavy ocean-traffic lanes. If I slept for too long, I may inadvertently run into the shore, or a tanker whose radar might not detect a small wooden boat. And if I was really lacking sleep and one o
f those storms was to sneak up on me, my ability to make good decisions might be compromised and… well, I’m this close to Palm Coast, why risk myself and the boat at this point.

By measuring 50 or 60 mile intervals on my chart, I chose a series of ports that I could day-hop between; sail offshore during the day, and go into a protected anchorage by the evening. But after Fort Pierce, to continue to sail offshore, I would have no other choice but to make that final 110 mile hop to Palm Coast all in one go. That, or motor up the waterway. Taking things one day at a time, I left Kim and Mikes, motored to the next break in the sand dunes, and set my sails, bound for West Palm Beach just 40 miles up the coast. By 10am, I was in 30kt winds, skirting the edge of a large thunderstorm. Thankfully though, the bulk of the storm continued out to sea behind me. I had good wind most of the way, never straying much more than a mile from the beach. Murphy's Law was confirmed as I approached the Fairway buoy marking the entrance to West Palm Beach though, and with little notice I was once again in gale force winds, but this time the rain was blinding, and the two 60ft sport-fishing boats I'd been tracking for the past 2 hours disappeared in the fog. A collision though wasn't at the top of my list of worries. It was the lightening. It was almost simultaneous with the thunder, and I kept thinking, 'Yup, this might just be the day'. The day my luck runs out. It's strange, the things that can get stuck in your head when you spend too much time alone, and they repeat again and again in your mind. On this day, it was the words Human French-fry. Once, I felt all the hairs on my body stand on end, I don't know what that means in terms of how close the strike must have come, but at this point I went below, closed the hatch, stayed away from metal objects, and let the boat sail where she liked for the next 15 minutes. I've never been more thankful for the change in my rig that Mike in Lunenburg insisted upon before I left Canada, providing me with a self-tacking jib. I was shivering
and shaking, partly from being rain-soaked and wearing only my bikini, but more out of fear and nerves. I kept looking out the windows, hoping to be able to spot the other boats in time if I came too close.
When I felt the storm was a safe distance away, I looked to my destination, and again, a series of white-hot forks made their way from the clouds to touch down who-knows-where. Feeling like a tall target on the wide flat sea, I made a run for the harbour, hoping visibility would stay on my side, and that I could make the 4 or so miles before the bulk of the storm hit.

I dropped my anchor in 8 ft of water not long after passing through the harbour entrance, and ran below, with a moment or two to spare. The next crack of thunder and lightening was one to surpass all the stormy situations I've been in to date, witnessed from sea or land. I started talking, muttering, nervously, incomprehensibly almost, to myself, or to the cat, or to both of us. "Did we just get hit? What just happened? Was the boat struck? Are we okay? Are we?'. I was convinced the boat had been struck, from the charge I felt myself, and from the unnerving sound of Effie's shriek a split second later. The ensuing torrents of rain calmed me though, an
d slowly I became rational, and gathered the courage to go out and check if there was a cindered spruce mast, being doused by the rains. I never did find any
evidence of a strike, but I have no doubt it was a close one.

I waited a few days at West Palm Beach for appropriate weather. It was a true test of patience, being unable to go ashore because I had only one oar for my dingy, and with little else to do but sit down below to hide from the sun and in
tolerable heat. Two days passed, then I was able to begin making my way to Fort Pierce. Within a few hours, storm clouds were looming, and a loud, piercing aggravating beep over the VHF prompted me to turn the station over to the WX channel (weather station) for an emergency broadcast. I heard the weather warnings of 30kt gusts with an approaching isolated thunderstorm the front, and I thought I had reduced sail sufficiently. With a small jib and my mizzen set, and the wind coming from behind, I though when it breezed up, I would fly downwind without too much fuss. I was less than a mile from the beach, and before I

knew it, the beach was made invisible by a wall of white. A moment later, instead of breaking speed records, Annie rounded up almost into the wind, then laid down on her side. I think I was thrown, I assume I was, and I attempted to steer her all the way into the wind, to let the sails flog, and to bring her upright. But, she wouldn’t.
The rudder must have been completely out of the water. I started up the engine and hoped that by motoring, something would be different, but it wasn’t until about 10 seconds later, when the wind eased momentarily, that she went where I wanted her to, and
she slowly righted. Not being able to hear the engine for the screech of wind in the rigging, I didn’t realize I had the throttle to over 2500rpm (2000 is my normal maximum) and as soon as she righted, her bow then passed right through the eye of the wind, and the wind caught the other side of the sails, and over I went again. It took me 15 minutes of running forward to the bow and out onto the spindly wires of the bowsprit to pull part of the jib down, then running back to the helm to bring her up into the wind again, numerous times, before the sail was down then I could deal with the mizzen from the cockpit. Then my thoughts turned to the beach. I could hardly see 60ft ahead from the driving rain, and in all that fiasco I had no idea how close I may have come. I decided to steer due east until visibility improved. Not long after I was able to take the engine out of gear; the windage on the boat itself was enough to keep me running downwind at 6kts. Once sufficiently satisfied that everything was going to be alright and I had things under control, I became aware of a throbbing pain in my right arm and baby toe. I didn’t think I was one to panic, but looking back on my actions, and realizing that I had no idea when or how I had hurt myself, I wondered how I could have avoided it. I was 6 miles from Fort Pierce, and unable to move my right arm, I motored the remainder of the trip, not feeling able to raise sail again. It crossed my mind to continue around Cape Canaveral on that overnight journey, because I wasn’t sure if, once dropped, I’d be able to retrieve my anchor again. Sailing might be easier, I reasoned.

Definition of the term 'easy' is primarily is a matter of perception. When I processed the thought, that spending a night at sea, alone, on a wooden boat, in relatively unfamiliar waters, where violent and deadly thunderstorms maintained a constant watch, where cargo ships habitually had a computer at the helm with watchmen only intermittently taking the care to lookout for those little red and green lights indicating another life on that broad ocean… I laughed when I realized that all that risk would be easier for me than the alternative of swallowing my pride and asking someone in the anchorage the following morning for help hauling up my anchor.

I motored towards the inlet. It seemed I'd not be let off easy on any account, and would not relax until that anchor was deep in the mud. As I approached the inlet, an hour after low tide, I thought I had the currents all figured out. I thought I'd have a nice easy rush of water at my stern, and I'd be able to motor at half throttle in around the bend. I was a little surprised when I had 3 kts of current working against me, creating standing waves and eddies that made steering difficult and kept my heart in my throat as I struggeled to keep centered between the two rocky breakwaters. I wasn't completely surprised though. I have been wrong before.