Monday, April 9, 2018

Everglades Challenge Florida Bay

My boat an EC 22 was designed for and named after the Everglades Challenge Race. The Everglades Challenge is a small boat race that starts at Fort Desoto Park near Tampa Florida and ends 300 miles later at Key Largo.

Three years ago Sally and I launched SKORPA at Chokoloskee and sailed down to Ponce de Leon Bay and back. I chronicled that trip in a previous post. March to the Everglades This year our plan was to watch the start of the race at Fort Desoto and then trailer our boat down to Flamingo and spend several days exploring Florida Bay.

We met our cousin Karen at Fort Desoto Park. We caught up on old times while surveying the varied, and interesting line up of boats pulled above the high tide mark for the start of the race.

The campground is located on St Christopher Key in Tampa Bay and the race starts on the adjoining Mullet Key. In the photo below I am looking at a tricked out CS 17 with wishbone sprit booms, a nice dodger and lots of carbon fiber.

 Speaking of carbon fiber, Randy Smyth's boat is a light and fast trimaran with a wing mast to boot.


Looking down the beach at the variety of water craft over fifty small sailboats and 30 or so kayaks.

Some boats built just for speed some built for beauty or some combination of the two.

The variety of boats is amazing. Sally and Karen are looking over a new CS 17mk3.

Kayaks, sailboats, and SUPs are all going to try to make 300 miles along the southwestern coast of Florida in seven days or less.

We  have followed the race online for several years and we know several of the participants from the annual B&B Mess-about. Below Sally greets Watertriber Sandy Bottom as she completes last minute preparations to her Kruger Sea Wind.

A hug for good luck.

The sun was just rising through the spans of the Tampa Bay bridge, the atmosphere was filled with a nervous excitement as the 7am start time approached and alas passed as there was to be a two hour delay in the start. Below is a link to a video of the start.

Start of the Everglades Challenge Race Fort Desoto, Florida

After we saw the racers off, we said farewell to Karen and headed south for Flamingo. This is the view from the visitors center looking out into Florida Bay.

We met two of the Watertribe race officials who were manning Check Point 3, waiting for the first racers to come in.

Why did we take longer than usual to get the boat rigged and loaded with food, water, and gear for our seven day excursion into Florida Bay. We sat and watched the Manatees playing in the harbor. Flamingo was still recovering from Hurricane Irma. Only one bathroom was open, and the water was off for several hours. I had been warned that the local vultures liked to peck at the rubber gaskets and wiper blades of vehicles left in the marina parking lot. The vultures were especially fond of new cars. I fastened the tent fly over the front of our new car. Finally about 1pm we were off, heading west for Cape Sable. We passed the two lead boats in the race heading east to the Flamingo check point as we headed out. The wind was out of the NE at 10-15 knots so we made good progress, but the wind backed first to the North and then the Northwest. Cape Sable is made up of  East Cape, Middle Cape, and Northwest Cape. Our course now lay almost dead into the wind, a pounding chop, and a chilly breeze did not make for comfortable sailing, but we pushed on hoping to find a little shelter up close to Middle Cape. Sally is pleased that we managed to find an anchorage before the sun set.

In the morning we moved Skorpa in close to shore and got out for a beautiful walk. We were now about 12 miles from our southern most anchorage on our trip out of Chokoloskee three years ago.

Miles and miles of pristine beach.

Nest day we were off heading south. We did not have a destination just a direction, but as the day got later we decided to anchor off Sandy Key.

Sandy Key is posted with signs asking visitors to stay away. Hundreds of birds use it as a rookery. White Pelicans, Brown Pelicans, Herons, Egrets, numerous smaller birds. There seemed to be no room left on the branches. The quiet Florida night was interrupted frequently with squawking and shrieking. We decided to leave them their space and enjoyed watching through binoculars so I don't have any photos that do Sandy Key justice.

In the morning we set off to explore Man of War Channel to get a feel for what it would be like exploring the shallows of Florida Bay. We got through the channel no problems. On the other side we explored Johnson Key and the photo below is the Johnson Key Chickee.

We anchored close to Man of War Key for lunch. If you look closely you should be able to make out the Brown Pelicans roosting in the Mangrove branches. During our lunch stop we heard a favorable weather forecast for the next few days.

 We decided we would try to make the run to Key Largo about 30 miles away.

As we approached Long Key one of the Watertribe racers caught up with us. His name was Bjorn. He asked how far to Key Largo. I told him 20 miles or so. He was tired and cold but wanted to press on. He was hoping we would accompany him. He was disappointed when I told him we were going to stop for the night at Lignumvitae Key.

Lignum vitae is a much sought after tropical hardwood,  hard and durable. The Key named after the wood is a beautiful nature preserve tucked up beside the developed Keys that lay along Route 1. I wished we had taken some time to explore it, but we headed off for Key Largo.

Video Sailing East to Key Largo

Video Sailing through Cowpens Cut

We arrived at Key Largo, the finish of the Everglades Challenge on Wednesday afternoon. Several Watertribe racers had already finished, but most were still out on the course. They would arrive singly and in small groups over the next few days. We spent the days ashore visiting with friends and making new ones and enjoying the amenities of Key Largo like hot showers and Mrs Mac's Kitchen.
View of the finish line at Key Largo.

J.F. Bedard is taking out Matt Layden's Illusion for a test sail.

A Bolger Sneakeasy powered by Photovoltaic panels hums across the finish line.

Enjoying a night out a Mrs. Mac's!

The wind blew hard out of the North for a couple of days. When on Saturday the wind veered to the southeast we decided it was time for us to attempt a crossing of Florida Bay to Flamingo. Florida Bay looks like a lot of open water dotted with low Mangrove covered islands, but much of that water is only a foot or two deep. To complicate matters the water level rises and falls in a twice daily lunar cycle in some parts of the bay but not in others. The wind can also affect the water level by three feet or so. Traversing the bay can go from a pleasure cruise to a nightmare.  The bay can go from mostly water to mostly mud for a day or two or several days. Below is a link to some videos of our crossing.
When we left Key Largo we had a 15knot wind from the South southeast. We were on a reach with pretty smooth water. Our boat speed was about 8 knots.

Video Moving along nicely.

Here are a couple of videos of us negotiating some of the shallower areas. The channels have colorful names like Twisty Mile and Crocodile Dragover.  We had it pretty easy as the water level was about "normal".

Video Twisty Mile

Video Dump Key Pass

It was truly satisfying to slip back into the little harbor at Flamingo. No motor, no noise, just the sails bringing us in through the tight entrance. We didn't even use the oars.

On the way out of Flamingo we stopped at a couple of the waysides to view some of the remaining Mahogany Trees.

And to say farewell to Pay-Hay Okee, Grassy Waters!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Tarpaulin Cove

Tarpaulin Cove is on the eastern side of Naushon Island, the largest of the Elizabeth Islands. They are located between Martha's Vineyard and the coast of Massachusetts.

Wednesday August 9, 2017 I sailed from Great Island with food and water for three days. The skies were clear and the wind was from the southwest at 10-15 knots. I was close hauled but I had the tide with me as I negotiated the Point Judith Breach Way.  Still close hauled I made the east gap and then as I rounded Point Judith I was able to move to a broad reach. Tarpaulin Cove lay 35 nautical miles ahead and it was already 1pm,  I wanted to arrive before dark. Much depended on what the wind and tides had in store for me. It would be close but everything felt good so I decided to go for it.

Instead of moving a mile or two further east toward the center of Vineyard Sound I stayed close to Sow and Pig Reef and the east side of Cuttyhunk. This shortened my route just a bit but I met some very steep two foot standing waves as the southwest wind now down to 10 knots met the ebbing Vineyard Sound current. In most places the current was around 1.5 knots but it was closer to 2.5 knots in the 15 to 20 foot water I was cutting through. I was a little concerned as Skorpa buried her bow deep into the waves, as deep as I have every buried her bow. I was unsure how long I would face these waves or if they would get worse before they got better. Of course I never should have cut this close to the reef or negotiated the shallows with a strong apposing tide, but Skorpa shook off the waves and plowed on and after 15 minutes or so I was out of the shallow water.
The sun was getting low, but the Cuttyhunk harbor looked full of masts and to enter it from the east I would have to navigate the notorious Canapitsit Channel. I decided to press on. The sun was just setting as I passed Nashawena. Quick's Hole is a good anchorage and very accessible, but I was only and hour or so away from Tarpaulin Cove so I decided to continue. The lighthouse on the bluff and the mouth of Tarpaulin Cove were welcome sites. I set the anchor in ten feet of water with the last bit of daylight.

 There were a few other boats at anchor in the cove including the 108 foot Top Sail Schooner Shenandoah. The next morning I sailed around her to get a closer look. She was built in Maine in 1964 along the lines of the 19th century Schooner, Joe Lane. She was built and to this day operates without auxiliary power. The Shenandoah was crewed by a couple of dozen middle school students who seemed to be having a whale of a time, hauling together on halyards, climbing out on the bowsprit, and jumping into the water from the side of the ship.
 I anchored over closer to shore so I could step out into knee deep water and wade ashore. I walked a path up to the top of the bluff to get a closer look at the Tarpaulin Cove Lighthouse.
The original wooden structure was built on this site in 1759 by Zaccheus Lumbert the owner of the tavern at Tarpaulin Cove. This was the fourth lighthouse built in New England. The Boston Light 1716, Narragansett Bay 1740, Nantucket Light 1746, all marked the entrance to busy seaports. Tarpaulin Cove Light is unusually in that it is not on a headland or marking the entrance to a seaport. It was, however a convenient refuge for ships navigating the currents and reefs of Vineyard Sound on their way to and from Nantucket on what was one of the busiest waterways in the world.

I left Tarpaulin Cove in the afternoon with the ebbing tide of Vineyard Sound. I sailed about 6 nautical miles directly into the southwest breeze. I passed Pasque Island and entered Quick's Hole. There is a wide sandy beach on the east side of Nashawena. I anchored,  and then pulled the stern into the shallows hopped out and went for a walk. The beach is wide and a mile or so long. On the far end I met one of the cows that graze the island.

 Skorpa naturally lies at anchor facing into the wind.  The waves were being refracted as they worked their way around the tip of Nashawena and into Quick's Hole. This resulted in the waves hitting Skorpa broadsides. This isn't really harmful and during the day you might hardly notice it, but down in my bunk it can make for a noisy, bouncy night for a light sleeper. I set out a second anchor to hold Skorpa's bow into the waves and had a quiet night below. Good thing as tomorrow I wanted to sail with the outgoing tide which would begin to ebb at 4:30am

 There was not much wind, but it was behind me and the current was with me.

Farewell to the Elizebeth Islands.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Virginia's Barrier Islands

Virginia's Barrier Islands are owned by the Nature Conservancy, the State of Virginia, the Federal Government, and a portion of a couple of islands are privately owned. The Nature Conservancy manages their holdings under the  Virginia Coast Reserve. This area was incredibly rich in shellfish, fish, and waterfowl. For a variety of reasons primarily, overhunting, overfishing, and pollution, this bountiful system was nearly destroyed. This area was so incredibly prolific that people believed that no matter how wasteful, greedy or just plain thoughtless they were there was no limit to natures bounty and if there was it would be someone else's problem.  There were hunting lodges, hotels, post offices, coast guard stations, and schools on these islands for about a 150 years until the mid nineteen hundreds. Storms, environmental degradation, and a rough and isolated life contributed to the slow abandonment of these settlements. In the late nineteen sixties the Nature Conservancy saw an opportunity to purchase these islands and try to nurture them back to health. They are now the largest stretch of undeveloped barrier islands along the United States East Coast. The map below depicts Virginia's Eastern Shore, the southern half of what is called the Delmarva Peninsula. The area was relatively isolated until the building of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in 1964.

Sally and I visited the area a few times starting around 2003. We fell in love with the undeveloped beauty of the area. We used our sailing kayaks and canoe to access the islands and marshes.  

We were captivated by the varied, abundant, and unusual birdlife.

We volunteered with the Nature Conservancy to help gather eelgrass seed to be used in their eelgrass restoration program.

Eelgrass is a key species that helps convert an unstable sandy desert like seafloor into a stable tropical forest like seabed. Eelgrass was almost eliminated from the east coast by pollution and disease in the 1900's. Eelgrass grows in water from 2 to 6 feet in depth. It stabilizes the sea floor and becomes a nursery for a huge variety of marine life. Eelgrass however needs very clear water so that sunlight can penetrate and provide energy for its photosynthesis. Eelgrass is not very tolerant of the nutrient rich, sediment rich, turbid waters typical of our coastal areas. The Nature Conservancy is working with local farmers, industry, and municipalities to use stewardship and best practices as a way of limiting wasteful and damaging discharge into the wetlands. There is hopeful progress but it is slow. It is inherently difficult to put such an intricate web back together once it has been compromised.

Most of these islands are opened to non damaging day use but  no camping is allowed. Back in 2007 I dreamed about having a sailboat that would allow sleeping onboard and had the ability to navigate the shallow waters of these islands.

I am always thrilled crossing the  Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. The bridge traverses the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay 17 miles, two tunnels, and a high rise span. It is almost like being at sea. The dramatic breaking waves where current, meets wind, meets shoals are just curiosities when viewed from a car on a bridge, but soon 6mm of plywood is all there will be between us and the sea.

We found our way to the remote village of Oyster and under the curious gaze of some local watermen we started setting up Skorpa. And just as anyone with any sense was getting off the water we set sail, tacking out of the harbor on the ebb tide as the sun lowered into the western sky.

On the one hand I do not want to minimize the very real risks we face. Skorpa is a small lightweight sailboat without any motor. These waters we are entering consist of large bays connected by marshes and inlets. There is a five foot tidal range so great areas of what looks like open water in a few hours is transformed into  mud flats and oyster bars and the calm inlets become raging rivers roaring out to sea and six hours later roaring back in. There are few landmarks because one tidal marsh looks pretty much like the next one. Channel markers are far apart, sometimes missing, or sometimes the channel has moved leaving the marker on ground obviously not suited to navigation by boat.
 I had in my notes the times of the tide changes, I had charts, my GPS and backup, spare batteries, marine radio, cell phones, spare clothes stored in dry bags, food and water. We had a superbly designed, well built boat and we knew how to make her sing. We knew when to move and when to lay low, and we knew that despite all that.

A pair of raptors were taking up residence on an abandoned chimney near our first night anchorage at Cockle Point Creek. After checking out the raptors we decided to head up Cockle Point Creek into the Elkins and then the Eckichy Marshes. The tide was ebbing but we had a gentle NW breeze that might make it possible to retrace our steps if the channel faded.  

We spotted egrets, oyster catchers, wimbrels, terns, and a bald eagle. We anchored and enjoyed watching the birds and spending some time in the cabin out of the sun. After lunch we decided to attempt to travel further north into the marsh hoping to reach the outlet at Gull Marsh Channel. On the chart the channel faded and there were no depths marked. As we proceeded the water gradually became more shallow. We had to raise the centerboard up and up, then the rudder had to be raised up and up. I knew we were close to where the water would begin to deepen. We came to a stop and I got out the binoculars and looked around. I could see we had missed the exit by a hundred yards or so. We would have to retrace our course and stay further west. In many sail boats turning around in such shallow water would be difficult or impossible, but all we did was push out on the mizzen until the stern swung around and then push out on the main until the bow came around to our new course.

We were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves until we reach the channel where the now flooding tide was pouring in. We needed to tack up this channel and for that we would need the centerboard down and it refused to budge. There happened to be a flock of laughing gulls and they were making an especially raucous chorus. The current was threatening to drive us onto a shoal so we dropped the anchor until we could persuade the undoubtedly sand clogged board to drop. Sally decide to name the area Laughing Gull Pass. Once we made it through the Pass it was running before the wind down the Machipongo to Hog Island.

We had Pasta for dinner and a very quiet night at our anchorage between Hog and Rogue Islands. And no bugs. Light winds usually means lots of mosquitos. The next morning we anchored near the southwestern tip of Hog Island and went ashore for a walk and explore.

Beach combers do not make it out here very often. Lots of nice shells, but we took only pictures. 

Hog Island belongs to the Nature Conservancy. They ask that you stay below the high tide mark to avoid disturbing nesting birds and to avoid damaging the dune grasses that are charged with the difficult job of stabilizing this pile of sand against the forces of wind and waves.

I am not sure if the buoy moved to the beach or the beach moved to the buoy.

We had lunch and a little rest out of the sun in the cabin while the tide bottomed out and began to flood. We decided to cross the Machipongo and head for Rowes Hole Channel then try to cross Big Easter Marsh while the tide was rising. We would look for an anchorage near Little Cobb Island. One concern we had was the breaking waves we could see well up the Machipongo in the vicinity of Rowes Hole Channel. The breaking waves were an indication of shallow water and if the wind should decrease any it could leave us at the mercy of the current. The crossing went well until we were on the far side when we had to use the paddle to help get us around some nasty looking waves breaking on a sandbar. After that it was pretty smooth sailing as we rode the flood tide around the west side of Big Easter Marsh. The water depth decrease to about a foot and we could see Eelgrass for the first time. Soon the water began to deepen as we reached Loon Channel which would lead us down to Little Cobb. And sure enough we could hear a couple of Loons and see them diving in the Channel.

We sailed slowly back and forth just north of Little Cobb while I sounded the bottom for adequate depth. The ideal anchorage is deep enough to leave plenty of water under your keel even at dead low tide, it should be out of the current and channel, it should be sheltered from wind and waves from the prevailing or predicted direction. And you should be able to sail out of your anchorage easily even if the wind should change direction. Most of the deep water around the Barrier Islands is in the inlets where it can be 50 or 60 feet deep. It is that deep because the current has scoured all the sand out.

So even though I was not really pleased with our anchorage I felt it was the best we were likely to find. We were out of the current with about 6 feet of water even though the tide was not yet high, but there was not much to block the wind and waves from the north and to our lee was Little Cobb Island.

I did not think much of it because the wind was light as I set the anchor. Half way through our dinner of rice and vegetable the wind suddenly picked up until the rigging was humming and the boat was rocking. I went forward and it was blowing over 20 knots. I could tell by the marks I have on my anchor line that we had forty feet of scope out. As I let out another forty feet the boat began to pick up speed. I ran the line around a cleat and began to bring the boat to a stop. The line went taut and put a good strain on the anchor but she held fast. That should hold up to a pretty stiff blow and it blew and the boat rocked for the first half of the night.

The wind eased by morning and I thought if we got an early start we could make it across South Bay during high water. Just as we were getting ready to leave the wind began to build again. I set two reefs but the wind kept building to over 20 knots from the North. We can sail the boat in that much wind but we have to be on our toes and things come at you pretty fast. I did not want to push things in such unfamiliar and isolated waters. So as much as I hated to, we decided to wait. We read and watched some dolphins and I could see that we were missing our chance to cross South Bay.

By 11am the wind was veering a little to the Northeast and I thought it was losing a little of its punch.
Loon Channel narrows and swings between Cobb and Little Cobb before entering Sand Shoal Inlet. There had been a significant settlement on Cobb Island and the channel looked like it was strewn with old pilings. I did not fancy going that way driven by such a strong wind which meant we would have to sail around the western end of Little Cobb. The chart just showed this area as shallow, exposed at low tide, no depth indicated. We could not see any breaking waves so I thought we would be OK but I did not want to wait any longer as the tide was ebbing strongly. So off we flew.

 The general plan was to work our way southward toward Myrtle and Smith Islands while the north wind blew and then head north back to Oyster on Thursday when the winds were predicted to change to southerlies. Since our delayed departure caused us to miss the high tide we would travel west up Sand Shoal Inlet then south down the Mockhorn Channel. Not as interesting perhaps as the marshes of South Bay but c'est la vie.

Studying the charts I noticed an interesting twisty "Short Cut" that led into a shallow bay. We decided to check it out.


 Mockhorn Island lies between the barrier islands and the mainland. It appears large on the map but most of the island consists of Spartina marsh that is inundated at high tide. The high ground sustains some scrubby cedar trees and bay laurels. There are two lookout towers built in the 1940's that were intended to direct the fire of large guns located on the mainland. There is also an old home, barn, and outbuildings, in various states of decay. We sailed by all these. Our  hope was to sail across Smith Island Bay, and up the Main Ship Shoal Channel, perhaps as far as Mink Island. When we rounded the southern tip of Mockhorn and headed up into the wind the large fetch and shallow water made for an uncomfortable chop. It was only 4pm and we had spent most of the morning waiting at anchor for the wind to ease, but still we did not feel like fighting our way upwind for an unknown anchorage. So we came about and slipped back into the lee of Mockhorn. Our only difficulty was sounding for sufficient water depth.

Larimer A. Cushman who made his wealth in his family's baking industry purchased Mockhorn Island in the early 1900's. He improved on the existing hunting lodge and began to construct an impressive, largely self-sufficient estate. When I first examined the buildings I imagined that he must have been in the concrete business, the walls are all covered in reinforced concrete stucco, even the shingles are concrete.

 Sally is sitting on part of the concrete pier, behind her you can see part of the concrete walls that surround the high ground.

The house is hidden behind a jungle of vines and shrubs. The concrete capped chimneys look to be in excellent condition.

 The barn was added by T.A. Jones who bought the island from the Katherine Cushman in 1948.

T.A. Jones must have had an eye for detail and quality of construction.

The roof and walls all appear very straight and true.

Diagonal bracing let into the walls, simple but very well done.

The diagonal line is where a downspout was located. I suspect freshwater was in short supply making collecting rainwater a priority.

These shingles look similar to slate, but I think they are a manufactured concrete product.

All the shingles I could see on the barn and house looked in excellent condition. These are from a collapsed outbuilding.

This is a view across one of the seawalls. The trees mark the high ground and the house site.

These islands and marshes are a paradise to all sorts of marine and bird life.

Sipping my coffee in the predawn darkness it seemed a bit lonely and forbidding to me. Forbidding is not quite the feeling more like filled with a presence.