“Still too young to fail To scared to sail away
But one of these days I’ll grow old and I’ll grow brave
And I’ll go One of these days.”
— Angus and Julia Stone from “Chocolate and Cigarettes”
The Manatee River is a bit less than a mile wide where it flows under Highway 41, at Palmetto, Florida. Revival, a 26 ft. sloop, is tied to a mooring buoy 200 yards or so from the shore. Her hull is painted royal blue, and her dodger is burgundy. The combination of colors is unusual and striking. One does not often see a sailboat moored in a river in an urban area like this, yet there is another one not far away, a few hundred yards upstream. As it turns out they belong to two brothers, long time Palmetto residents Bart and younger brother Danny. Marina dock fees are not inexpensive and for these brothers, delightfully unnecessary. Palmetto is a small city and as such I suspect people there tend to be favorably disposed towards their neighbors’ reasonable requests. In this case they passed a law that allows boat owners to forgo the fees and set their own mooring balls in the riverbed. Bart keeps a hard sided dinghy at his mother’s house a block from the riverside, on a dolly. When it is time to go out to the boat he simply walks the dolly/boat to a small spot of shoreline owned by the city which gives the neighborhood access to the river. He then puts the dinghy in the water and rows out to his 26 foot sloop.
Our task this Thursday afternoon: To ferry out to the boat the water to fill the 20 gallons of onboard storage, a five day supply of food for 4 people, the re-charged 12 volt battery, a recently repaired mainsail, and our personal gear. The plan was to be gone by 1:00 pm or so, before the 3:30 tide change. Yes. Well. That is a total of 4 trips back and forth. It takes a while to reinstall the mainsail. We have to return the shuttle vehicle to Bart’s house. Etc. The final trip is with the Porta-Bote, a fold-up dinghy that we then secure to the foredeck stanchions. We find ourselves casting off the mooring about ½ hour after the beginning of the tide change, about 4:00 pm.
Revival does not boast a motor (actually she boasts that she does not have a motor). We need to sail her out to the Gulf, down river, in a narrow channel, against the tide, with little wind, soon to be in the dark. The date is December 18, and the sun will set at about 5:30. It is Bart, myself, and Jen. I have been on Revival once, about 2 weeks ago for a few hours, and Jen never. Bart does this wonderful thing. Whenever he needs to move her to a new location, or whenever he has time off from teaching his Outward Bound Courses and wishes to go sailing, he gets on Facebook and offers to his friends the opportunity to crew on his boat. Most boat owners looking for crew want experience. Not so Bart. He takes true greenhorns like myself and immerses them in the experience. He keeps track by giving us all a number. I was crew #75.
We are moving slowly at first, a knot or two perhaps, due to the light wind and changing tide. The channel is marked. Some of the markers have lights, some do not. Outside of the channel the river is too shallow for the 44-inch draft of Revival, so we need to short tack 13 miles down river to the gulf. Bart gives the handheld GPS to Jen and gives her a quick lesson on how to tell him when we are about to go outside the channel, and how to read the depth marks. He is on the tiller. My job is to sheet in the jib after each tack. He again shows me the proper way to wind the lines over the winches to pull in the sail, and to then tie them off to their cleats. After a while we are tacking so often I decide to just hold on to them in anticipation of the next move. The idea with the jib sheets is that they are attached to the bottom aft end of the sail, and as it moves from one side of the boat to the other you must release one sheet and tighten the other. Bart is handling the mainsail sheeting as well as the tiller.
It is getting dark, and hard to spot the unlit markers. Jen learns fast and she is totally on it with the GPS. I do not really appreciate the skill demonstrated by the Captain until much later when I have time to read and learn more about just how many things are in play during this short passage. Of course he has done this particular one numerous times. Still I can sense the apprehension in his voice and his facial expression, while smiling, reveals his total attention to what is happening. I feel apprehensive myself, due mostly to the darkness now, but I am also pretty excited. I begin, however slightly, to sense the reason we have always been drawn to the sea. The wind seems to pick up and shift a bit after the sun goes down. We are now within 5 miles or so of the marker we need to clear before heading south. Our speed is up a knot or so, and we can steer a fairly straight course for a while, so Bart turns the tiller over to me, gives me a bearing, and sits down to relax a bit. It has been a whirlwind few days (weeks?) for him, and I am kind of amazed how much activity he has crammed into the 48 hours before we left. So it is time for him to chill for sure.
Around 7 pm we exit the Channel and turn south. I am not really aware of the game plan, as this is my first overnighter on a boat. I know the near term goal is to try to meet up with a 4th crew member a few miles down the coast, a woman who is driving from North Carolina and unable to arrive in time for our departure from Palmetto. Beyond that I am just along for the ride, and for once not in charge of anything, which suits me perfectly. The slight wind is now out of the NE, perfect for our southerly heading. We begin to follow the coast, which falls off to port as we progress, such that before long we are 3 miles or so offshore. We are making about 3-4 knots in a gentle swell, so life is good. I am still on the tiller. Bart talks about watches. I have the first, 6-10 pm, Jen the second, Bart will take the 2-6 am. Four hours on, eight hours off, a normal watch cycle. Bart gets Tessa on the phone and we decide to meet her somewhere near Sanibel Island the next day.
So, our first night on the water. What is it like? With the lights from the coastal cities of Florida to light up the eastern horizon, it is the perfect introduction on how to stay on course. At this point the compass is not yet in place or lit, and so not available to check the exact heading, had I even thought to do so, which I did not. There are numerous communication towers with their many red aircraft indictor lights, and I decide to line up on those. There are also red channel marker lights out in the water. I have a picture in my mind of the area. And I know that, much like the front range mountains where I lived in Colorado, which follow a line west of north as you head north, the coast line here veers east as one heads south. It felt very familiar. I pick a tower and line up the forward shroud on one of its lights and attempt to keep the two lined up. Later I use a channel marker light lined up on the same shroud, which works even better, as I need to steer to the starboard side of it anyways to keep us out of the shallows. Eventually, I also pick a star and attempt to steer by it, which turns out to be the better method. In all cases though one must adjust for the forward motion of the boat, and the stars thru the heavens. It takes all my meager outdoors spatial recognition skills, but I feel I eventually figure it out. Right about that time, it becomes Jen’s turn to take over.
Now this is sweet. Bart is on the port side settee below. The starboard side is taken up with the chart table and other stuff below it. The v-berth is full of sails. So that leaves the option of the cabin floor or in the cockpit with Jen. Guess which one I choose. Sleeping in the open on a sailboat as it gently makes its way thru the water is without doubt one of life’s grander moments. As a first timer, with the secure feeling of the shore lights so close by, and as tired as I am from the day’s activities, I have no problem resting, and eventually falling asleep.
About sleeping and sailing; they don’t really go together all that well. As I write this it has been 6 months since the voyage, and I have read a series of books that describe offshore and coastal cruising. It seems that, once underway, one does not really get the proper sleep as required by the human body. The need to be instantly awake, should something change, say the weather for instance, or the approach of a large ship, or a change in the wave period, makes for less than perfect sleep patterns. Not to mention 4 hours is the max, if there be but two persons on board, as is often the case. But even when there are more, a watch change tends to waken all aboard for at least the few minutes it takes to turn over the tiller to the new watchhand. In our case we sometimes also changed our sleep location at that time as well, rotating between the bunk, the cabin sole (floor) and the cockpit. This was actually really brought home to me on our 3rd night out. I had a watch from 3 am to 7 am. When I took over from Bart, the sky had become somewhat clouded over. High wispy things, just enough opaqueness to blot out the stars to the west, and soon also to the south as well. By that time we were perhaps 30 miles offshore, thus no land was in sight. A faint glow of city lights lit the sky to the east, so our general direction was apparent. Also, Bart had turned on the compass light, and he would give us the proper heading to maintain. But the compass is very slow to react to changes imposed on the boat by movement of the tiller, which is something you are constantly doing, especially in the light breezes from the south east that we were now dealing with, meaning we were essentially needing to sail towards the wind. I started my watch doing what I had done on previous nights, trying to keep a certain star in a certain position in relationship to some object on the boat. What I thought at the time was the Big Dipper (but had to have been Sagittarius as Bart later pointed out to me) was just off the port bow so I used that for about an hour. However the clouds kept making it disappear for a few moments, and with increasing frequency, and when that happened I tried with a bright star overhead lined up with the top of the mast, which is much more difficult, as the masthead moves about so much. Bottom line I began to lose my orientation, and when that happened I fell off the wind and hove-to the boat, which is essentially stopping all forward motion. I did that four or five times inside a half hour. The next day I mentioned it to the crew and Bart said, “I know, I woke up every time I felt it.”
I had been sleeping below. Bart woke me up 10 minutes before I was to take over the watch I was just describing, as is customary. It is necessary, especially in the 3 am chill, to suit up and get ready to sit in one place for the next four hours. A few minutes after I took over, Bart was still in the cockpit with me, having just checked our position with the GPS and paper charts. It was very calm. Combined with the wispy clouds it felt almost foggy out. It made me think of a scene from a movie, no particular one. I had a moment of realization of just how small this boat was in this vast body of water that surrounded us. Suddenly I became aware of a disturbance on the silky grey water to starboard. It was a pod of dolphins, come to check us out. They were perhaps 20 feet away and on both sides of the boat. A few moments of awe then transpired. I was in fact sharing space and time with other intelligent beings. The nature of that intelligence is different than our own. I have felt it at other times, with land animals, such as bears. I once watched a bobcat sun itself for 2 hours on the stoop of the shed behind my house in Colorado. Same thing. But out here, far from land, in an essentially to me foreign environment, in the grey-dark, it took on a seriously magical quality. One cannot buy such an experience. You have to put yourself in a place where things like that may happen. You don’t seek it, rather you let yourself be open to the possibility, and then forget about it. Sailing, I suspect, offers a lot of possibility.
By this time we are 4. The second night out we spent on a sandbar. Towards the end of the 2nd day, we were heading into to Sanibel Island to pick up Tessa. When we grounded on the bar it was obvious to Bart, after checking the tide, that we were not going any further that night. Next day we managed to get off with the assistance of some local motor boaters, and Bart’s substantial efforts walking the anchor out to deeper water and getting the boat heeled over enough to be able to be dragged off. Two hours and a bit to the south and we are near the beach where Tessa waits for us. There are no marinas or docks on the seaward side of the island, besides that would not be nearly as much fun as what transpired instead. With a motor we could have just motored in straight on until we got to her and then backed out. Without a motor it becomes a bit trickier. Bart was leery, as we all were, of grounding again. And the wind was light but from the south and so not the best for keeping us offshore. Revival has a 44” draft. Tessa stands about 5’7”, which leaves us perhaps 12’’ below the keel when the water is up to her armpits, with her gear bag balanced on her head. Plenty. I don’t know if there is a name for this maneuver, and frankly it all happened so fast, I am not sure I will get this right but here goes: Bart has me go to the foredeck and get the anchor ready to drop. On his signal I do. Then he tells me to stand by to pull on the chain when he shouts. He and Jen are in the cockpit handling the sheets. We tack several times (I think) and on each one he has me pull on the anchor chain. Tessa has walked out as far as she can. Suddenly Jen is next to me with the boathook, and Tessa, who had been on the port side as we moved into shore was suddenly under the starboard bow. Jen grabs the gear back with the hook, and Tessa then grabs hold of the pulpit stanchion and tries to swing herself up, but is having trouble. I let go the anchor chain and grab an arm and she is onboard. A shout and applause comes from the beach where the sunbathers have been watching this whole circus. Then Bart is shouting to me to get the anchor up now, so he can get us the hell out of there, which I do, and he does. It was a very impressive bit of sailing, I think.
Here is another scene to think about. When you are passage making, that is, sailing to a destination without stopping for days or weeks, time does take on a different perspective. Picture again, you are at the tiller, keeping the boat on course, on your watch. The rest of the crew is sleeping. It is the second watch, 4am – 8am. At the start of your watch it is full nighttime, the sky is full of stars. At the end of your watch the sun is an hour above the horizon, a new day has begun. You were witness to the total change from dark to full light, and the only thing you had to do was watch it happen. Under these circumstances one has little need for a clock.
Days 3 and 4 we have light winds from the south (our direction) and so we end up 40 miles offshore. We then need to travel further south and sail a reach back north and east. Both days are sunny and mostly cloudless. Perfect sailing weather. We eat, we talk, Bart shows us how to use the GPS and the charts to figure out where we are, and answers my many questions about sailing. Jen and I discuss meditation techniques, and Tessa (who is 26) talks about her options, she is deciding what to do next, go to medical school or study boatbuilding. Time, as normally observed, again has little sway over events. Perhaps this is the greatest benefit derived from this sailing activity.
We arrive at Indian Pass, the channel into Everglades City, as the sun sets behind us on Day 5. We try to sail in to the dock on a very light breeze, using the big drifter, but the tide has turned and is running out at a pretty good clip, and we stall about ½ mile in. So we turn around and anchor in a small bay at the head of the channel as twilight deepens. We make some dinner and have a beer. As the night begins Bart rigs up the cockpit with extra planks, which creates enough room for 3 to sleep on deck. It is an altogether pleasant night, with the stars above, and the gentle motion of the boat to lull us to sleep, surrounded by the strange new sounds of the Everglades all around us. I awake just before sunrise, surprised to find we are enveloped in mist. I lay in my very wet sleeping bag for a long while, waiting for the sun to be high enough above the eastern treeline to be able to burn it off. Eventually my shipmates begin to stir, and we all quietly and slowly go about our morning business. Jen as usual makes the coffee. About 9am or so most of the fog is gone. I am sitting on the stern looking westward when I hear a splash. When I look up I spot several dolphins leaping free of the water. I call to the others, and we watch as they make their way into the lagoon, leaping clear twice more. Another bit of magic to begin our day, and one of the many reasons for being on a boat in the first place.
Soon it is time to head in to the dock. Bart has me pull the anchor as he sails off it, and then we are in the channel once more. The breeze is perfect for him to guide us slowly the 5 miles inland thru the mangrove islands that lead to the dock at Everglades City. I stand on the foredeck wielding the leadline, checking our depth, while Jen and Tessa assist with the sails. The channel is only about 50 yards wide, with many turns. No one save Bart would try it without a motor running, I am sure. At just the right moment Bart puts the tiller over, signals us to drop the jib and shortly afterwards the mainsail, and we gently drift into the dock and tie her off. We step off and find ourselves wobbly, on the unmoving earth once again, after 6 days on a little boat. I wish to do it again.
Bob Shannon In the Ocala National Forest, Florida, May 2015