You would normally think that the passage between Gulfport and Ft. Myers would be a leisurely cruise. Come-on this is the Sun Coast, well known for its balmy sun drenched weather and one to two foot waves breaking on the beach. This passage was the exception.
We left Gulfport on a cool (50 degrees), but relatively calm, morning on January 16th, expecting 10 to 15 knot winds offshore from the south. However, stormy weather kept the Gulf of Mexico riled up and we encountered 8 to 10 foot swells out of the west as we motored through the Pass-a-Grille cut. The 15 knot south winds put a frothy edge on swells and since we were heading due south for Sarasota we had to rely on the motor for this passage. Ten plus nautical miles west of Egmont Key we turned south and rock-and-rolled our way towards Sarasota. The official “Jones,” definition of sea conditions was “bumpy,” and both Danielle and Kaylee experienced bouts of sea sickness during this 35+ mile passage to Big Pass. Kaylee sat in the cockpit with her favorite seasick bowl, and was very brave as the bouts of nausea came and went.
Big Pass loomed out of the swells as we approached the coast of Sarasota. The mile wide throat of the pass was nothing but breakers pounding away at the sandbars. It looked impassable, but Danielle had researched the Big Pass website and gotten the most recent coordinates for the channel mouth. Ken had entered these way points into the Chart Plotter, so we motored past the breakers and made the turn east into the mouth of the channel. Ahead were more breakers and no visible channel markers. Ken’s epic comment at the scene infront of us is worth noting.
“At times like this you have to trust the chart and commit. There is no turning back in these conditions! We don’t want to spend all night out here.”
“There is a green buoy to starboard!”
“It is gone behind the breakers.”
“A red to port!
“There’s the green again on the starboard side!”
By now the boat is gyrating wildly and everyone is braced in the cockpit scanning the waves for a glimpse of the next marker. The breakers were only 10 yards off our port side at times. On shore we see a line of beach chairs and a group of people watching boats coming in the pass. For a while, we were center stage from their viewing point and they waved as if approving our heroic attempt to reach the calm waters of Sarasota Bay.
We of course, made it through the pass and motored into Marine Jacks where we picked up transient mooring ball #5. We had a nice evening with Stacey Roberts and Kaylee skippered the dinghy to shore and then back to the boat around 9:00 O’clock. We were secured for the night.
The storm hit around 3:30 AM, sheets of rain at first followed by gusts of wind and waves pounding on the hull. Ken checked the mooring lines during a lull in the wind and declared us secure. The wind and waves increased over the next hours reaching a peak over 40 miles per hour. A full gale! There was nothing to do but lay low and hang on. While we were secure, the fear was that one of the other boats would break loose and come crashing across the mooring field. We waited and watched conditions worsen as the, “Security, Security, Security,” calls came across the radio from the St. Petersburg Coast Guard District. Apparently, there was a boat loose around Regatta Point Marina and a man in the water somewhere in Tampa Bay. My cellphone alarm went off around 4:30 AM announcing a tornado alert. “Seek cover immediately,” was the message but there was no place to go. The next day we heard that a tornado had touched down on Siesta Key, only a few miles from our mooring. The winds were steady in the 30’s and gusting above 40 mph for the rest of the night. To say the boat was gyrating would be an understatement.
While lying in the bunk through the night, I tried to analyze the layers of noise that we were hearing during the storm. There was the heavy pelting of the rain that increased sharply during gust of wind. There was the sorrowful moan of the wind through the rigging and the pounding of the waves against the hull ranging from dull thuds to booming crashes that would shudder the boat to its keel. There was also the annoying torch of the boats joints that caused an, “errrk,” sound. These noises were punctuated by the melodious voice of the NOAA weather station proclaiming, “winds at 40 gusting higher, with offshore waves to 18 feet between Englewood and Ft. Myers.” 18 feet!
We were trapped on the mooring ball through most of the day. Ken, Danielle and Kaylee finally made it to shore as the waves diminished around 3:00 PM Sunday afternoon. There was a minor battle over who would be the Captain of the dinghy. I think Kaylee won that fight.
Monday morning and we make preparations to head south to Boca Grande. Ken, said that offshore conditions prohibit getting through the pass so we commit to the Intracoastal Waterway. This was the most leisurely of the passages. We had 10+ mph winds out of the north while we passed ten bridges without a delay. We anchored early at the cul-de-sac anchorage that Ken and Danielle had used during their previous voyage. It was very secure from the wind and pleasant. Ken and Kaylee rowed the dinghy across the Intracoastal and fished for dinner. The only incident of note during the Monday passage was a brief grounding. Yes, the helmsman ran the boat aground and we needed a tow to get us free. I won’t say who was at the helm, other than to mention that it was not one of the Jones’.
We got an early start on Tuesday morning with forecasted northeast winds between 10 and 15 mph. Then the same helmsmen who messed up the day before proceeded to run the boat aground again, this time in Boca Grande Channel. In my, excuse me, his defense it was low tide and we were in the channel! It took us over an hour to free the boat from the sand bar. Ken had to row the 40lb Bruce anchor 150 feet off the stern and we began to winch the boat to deeper water, which only appeared to be a few yards away. Ken also asked an approaching cruiser to speed up and give us a lift with his wake to help free the boat. It all worked and we were afloat again and spent the next hour motoring down the pass with Danielle at the wheel while we stowed gear and prepared to set course south around Captiva and Sanibel Islands. I would note again that the wave conditions at the pass were intense with white caps and short intervals between waves. Once passed the outer marker we turned south and launched the reefed head sail. We were making a good 5 to 6+ knots during the run down the coast in 6 to 8 foot waves, the best actual sailing of the passage. he wind diminished and we raised the reefed mainsail as we entered the southwest lee of Sanibel Island and the waves diminished to a one to two feet.
We picked up the last mooring ball in the North Ft. Myers Marine as the sun was setting, had tacos for dinner and went to bed early as the chill set into the cabin. Actually, it did not feel that we got above 50 degrees during the entire passage. We were layered up the whole time and still chilly in the cockpit. The Sun coast never favored us with the warmth of the sun.
I stepped ashore at the Diversified Marine Service dock at 9:00 AM Wednesday morning and waved as Aqua Vida headed for Marco Island.
Thanks again for letting me hang out with you three and I wish you fair winds during the rest of the voyage.