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by Dan and Jan Ahart
When the winds are favorable, the sky is clear, and the seas are friendly, it is next to impossible for sailors to sit at anchor. Thus we found ourselves on 22 October 1999 off Carrabelle, Florida. We had just finished a bodacious fried oyster lunch and were feeling quite content with the world, and would have taken a nap, but we had friends to visit in Punta Gorda, Florida and we felt we should take advantage of this good weather. So, we raised the anchor and the sails and set course for Tampa, Florida, which would be a good way stop on the journey to Punta Gorda.
The wind was out of the Northwest at 15 to 20 knots and we would be sailing Southeast. This put the wind at our back, which sounds perfect, but it is really not the best point of sail because it is not easy to keep both the main sail and the jib (the sail in the front of the boat) working at the same time. If the main is swung out on the same side of the boat as the jib, it tends to block wind for the jib and consequently the jib flops and flaps or in sailor talk, it luffs. The bottom line is, it doesn't contribute much to the sailing effort. The alternative is to swing the jib and the main on opposite sides of the boat. This is called wing and wing sailing. It looks neat and works pretty good until the wind shifts a little or the helmsperson allows the boat to get a little off course and then both sails tend to luff. And in a worst-case scenario, the main will swing unintentionally from one side of the boat to the other, which is called an accidental jibe. The main is attached to the boom, which is the horizontal pole (spar in sailor parlance) and the boom can cause real harm if anything is in its way when it swings rapidly. So, an accidental jibe or swing of the boom is not a good thing. Add to this, the tendency of any boat that is going directly with the wind to wallow a bit as the swells are either overtaken or the swells overtake the boat and you have a point of sail that requires diligence on the part of the crew – especially the helmsperson. We knew it would be a challenge, but we decided it was time to become real sailors and do it! So off we went on a leg of our voyage that would take us 180 miles and about 36 hours to complete.
There is absolutely no sunset more beautiful than one at sea. We were out of sight of land by evening and witnessed one of those sunsets that dreams are made of. The sun just got bigger and redder until it finally sank below the horizon in a rainbow of colors fading from orange to purple. There are times, I am told, that a green flash can be seen just as the sun slips below the horizon if the air is clear enough and other mysterious conditions are just right. We have never seen the phenomenon, but otherwise sober sailors swear that it is true. We will keep looking.
We'd planned an average speed of 5 knots for this leg, which is our usual torrid pace for winds in the 15-knot range. However, as the evening progressed, the winds got stronger. They peaked at about 25 knots, so we furled the jib. It rolls up on a roller at the front of the boat. That made it easier to steer even though at first we slowed down a bit. But we gained velocity, as the sea swells got bigger and more consistently spaced. Waves are determined by many factors, not the least of which is water depth. Short, steep and usually choppy waves are found in shallow water close to the shore, but as the water deepens, the ocean swells are encountered. Ocean swells, at least when the wind is at 25 knots or below, are really very pleasant. The waves are not steep although they can build to impressive heights. By dawn, we could see clearly that we were sailing in swells of six to eight feet from crest to trough. Since the swells were going in the same direction we were, but moving faster than we were, they would overtake us. We would gently rise up and then glide down to the next trough until the next wave lifted us again. During the night, when we were sailing very smoothly, our speed peaked at 9.6 knots, very good for us. The only trouble was that sailing in these conditions, with a crew of two meant that we were steering for one hour and resting for one hour. It wasn't really hard work, but it required attention. By breakfast we were tired and changed our course to Tarpon Springs, which is North of Tampa by about 40 miles. This change would allow us to get close to shore and anchor before dark.
We arrived at Anclote Key, outside Tarpon Springs at dusk. Using our radar, GPS, and depth finder, we were able to tuck in behind the Key in a relatively quiet spot out of the wind for the night. The next day was Sunday, October 24th. It was a very pretty day, but the wind was still blowing at 20 to 25 knots. Since the Intracoastal Waterway started again about a mile from where we were anchored, we decided to stay in the Waterway, inside the barrier islands and motor South for a day or so. Motoring is not as enjoyable as sailing because it is noisier and one feels more like a vessel driver than a sailor, but the upside is that the scenery varies more. In this case we had lots of beautiful homes and beautiful boats to look at.
By 2:00 pm, we were in Clearwater and decided to stop for the day. Being Sunday, the water was full of pleasure craft of all types and we reasoned we would enjoy just watching all the activity from our front row seats on Sojourner. Besides, it was easier on the nerves than dodging all the crazies in their speedboats. We found a nice anchorage in a bay just off the waterway and set up our chairs on the deck to relax and have some refreshments. The bay we were in was quite large and provided plenty of room for a variety of waterborne activities. There were paragliders, sailors in all kinds of boats, even a regatta from a local yacht club and tourist boats. It wasn't long before a dolphin spotting cruise boat full of tourists motored by. They came so close to us that the captain yelled over to ask us if we had seen any dolphin. Jan pointed one direction and I pointed the other. That got a few yuks from the tourists, most of whom waved to us, but the captain muttered something about adult refreshments clouding our judgment, so they motored off. It was a delightful afternoon and we enjoyed another wonderful sunset. Next morning, we sailed out under a new bridge that was 75 feet tall and into the open Gulf. The winds had moderated to about 15 knots and were now out of the Northeast, and we would be sailing South, so it provided a great sail for us. At times we made 7 knots, which pleased us a great deal.
Sojourner is a rather stout boat as catamarans go, having been designed in England for the North Sea. According to our owner's manual, she weighed 9 tons when built. Equipped as she is and loaded with all our provisions, we estimate her weight at closer to 10 tons. Consequently, she isn't the fastest boat around, but she is very stable and seaworthy. We feel good about that. When we were looking for a catamaran, we wanted a blue water one, which means one that is designed and rigged for ocean voyaging. Don't know if we will ever cross an ocean, but it is nice to know that she is capable of doing so. The first owner (we are the fourth owners) sailed her from England to Florida, by way of Trinidad. He left all of his charts aboard, so we know the routes he took.
We sailed all day in delightful conditions with lots of porpoise following us from time to time. The only problem we had was crab trap floats. Water depth off the Western coast of Florida is much like it is on the Alabama Coast. It is relatively shallow for several miles offshore and conditions are very conducive to large crab populations. Consequently, there are many crabbers (I guess that's what they're called) who place large wooden traps on the sea floor with ropes leading up to Styrofoam floats so they can be found. The traps and consequent floats are located in long rows. Each crabber has different colored floats and sometimes as many as 20 or more floats may be seen in long straight lines. Sometimes, due to waves, it is difficult to see the floats. Naturally, if one is unlucky or careless enough to get too close to a float, the rope connecting it to the trap may gets tangled on a propeller shaft or rudder. One minute we were sailing serenely along and the next minute we suddenly slowed down. A quick glance aft showed a sizable crab trap was in tow. Nothing to do but drop the sails, come to a stop, don the snorkel gear and go over the side to untangle the mess. I was better at untangling the mess the second time. I felt like a Navy seal with knife in hand and a serious mission to accomplish. You wouldn't believe how fast and how many times a rope can get tangled around a propeller. Even though we were sailing and not using the engines, the propellers spin freely from the force of the water moving past them. It is the spinning that causes the tangle to happen so fast. Some of the rope was tangled so tight, it could not be untangled and had to be cut away. I guess it's a hazard the crabbers take into account. Maybe it's a tax deduction for them.
We entered a harbor for the night just North of Tampa called Pass-A-Grille. It was a very nice area with nice boats and homes. We anchored for the night just off the pier of a small mansion that had a "for sale" sign in front of it. The anchorage was very nice with the exception of all the powerboats that would zoom by. Sojourner is very stable and rocks very little from boat wakes, but after a while it got a little annoying. However, one can't have perfect conditions all the time. On the plus side, we were enjoying beautiful weather and so far our trip had been just great. Stay tuned.