There was a beautiful clear sky with winds in the 10 to 15 knot range. Typical trade winds. We sailed out of Northwest Passage and then turned north towards Fort Myers. There was a moderate chop from the north east between 1 and 3 feet, but we were able to make good time. Before sunset our speed was between five and six knots. It was Valentine’s day, the 14th anniversary of our first date! Getting underway was a great way to celebrate.
The sunset did not disappoint, it was beautiful, and while we were watching it, the ferry to Fort Myers came blasting by at 30 plus knots. After sunset the sky darkened quickly, there was still a little white haze on the clouds on the horizon, the lights of Key West, but the rest of the sky was black and the starry display was fabulous. The sky was covered in stars and the Milky Way felt like it was close enough to reach up and touch. The winds held steady out of the east and we were on a beam reach doing between five and a half and 6 knots.
During the night we reached the northern edge of the trade wind belt and the winds gradually switched to the north and faded away and our 6 knots went down to 3. I went down to try and rest and Melanie came up on watch. Around 2:15 I woke up and although we were back on course again we were doing under 3 knots. The wind headed back around to the east but had died off to around 6 knots. We reluctantly started the motor to charge the batteries and give us a little more speed. During the night the Southern Cross constellation rose from the sea in the southern skies and for the first time our boat Southern Cross formally met the constellation Southern Cross. It was a beautiful sight to see, I have not seen the constellation since my trip to South Africa in 2004.
The night was uneventful, crystal clear skies with beautiful stars, so I spent most of the time star gazing while we made between 5 and 6 knots towards our destination. Gradually the sky lightened and a red band formed around the eastern horizon to herald the approach of morning. When the sun came up we had less than 14 miles to go to reach our destination and our odometer for the trip ticked over to 4000 nautical miles! We made good progress doing the night averaging over 6 knots motor sailing. The seas had calmed down and the waves were only about a foot. Long gentle swells with a gentle breeze blowing, so between the motor and the sails we were able to to make good time.
After sunrise, the wind increased to the point where we could turn the motor off and sail again. We were making between 4 and 5 knots, It was a lumpy sea with about a one foot chop. It almost felt like powerboat wakes, but there were no boats to be seen. We were close enough to shore that we could see the tops of tall buildings near Naples. Gradually the shoreline came closer and soon we were dropping sails and preparing to motor into the Matanzas inlet between Estero Island and the mainland. We called the mooring ball field to check for a reservation and they did have some open spots, so we motored in, found our ball, tied up and went ashore to pay, water the dog and find a place to eat. We ate at a place called Nervous Nellies, a great little place right on the water where we could watch the hustle and bustle of waterfront life.
Next day we headed ashore to do laundry and while there, met a live aboard named Kevin. He was a very educated man , retired, living a simple life and we had a great conversation. One question he posed to us: name a sports team whose name is grammatically incorrect. There’s one in every sport, but ice hockey is the easiest. He really struck me because of his affable way, and he really looked a LOT like my Uncle Andrew who passed away some years back.
We headed back to the boat and got ready for an evening out with Aaron and Jenny and her mother, Peggy. We met at Nervous Nellies and enjoyed a great meal, then headed out and went “bar hopping”. We found a place where there was a one man band playing – very good – and thoroughly enjoyed our evening. Needless to say we slept in the next morning! We left the mooring ball and motored over to a free public dock for the day, and Aaron bought Jenny and the kids to visit with us. We had a great time playing with the grandkids on the boat, then headed to the beach and wiled away the rest of the day. After they left we took the boat back to the mooring ball and watched the sunset before turning in for the evening.
Next morning we got a slow start. We were scheduled to leave for Tampa and didn’t get moving until early afternoon. We had to sail South passed a large shallow reef off the end of Sanibel Island before heading north along the coast of Sanibel towards Tampa. We started very slowly and by dark the wind had fizzled out altogether. We reluctantly had to motor and set a course and speed for between 3 and 4 knots. I had the first watch and it was a beautiful clear night, Stars abounded and we slowly made progress up the coast passing by the lights of Captiva Island. Melanie came on watch around 1 a.m. and I went down to bed.
During the night the wind came up quite substantially to the point that when I woke up in the morning we were doing almost 7 knots. We turned the motor off and our speed dropped to between five and six, still a very comfortable pace. We sailed up into Tampa Bay and arrived at Apollo Beach around 2 in the afternoon. My friend Jeff came and joined us and we went out to dinner at Circles restaurant which overlooked the bay we anchored in – and then spent the night chatting on the boat, catching up on lost time. The restaurant had a beachy feel and there were numerous funny signs scattered throughout the grounds and on the docks. They gave us a good laugh.
Next day we pretty much hung out, ran a few errands and then ate dinner at Jeff’s where we met his girlfriend Marie. We wiled away the day on Thursday and then Friday we pulled into the marina which had the same types of docks as Cape Canaveral; a short 10 ft finger and 2 poles out in the water to attach the stern lines to. That was a disaster trying to tie up, we had sworn we would never do it again but for the sake of expediency we decided that it was probably the best. Even with two dockhands helping us we had a difficult time coming in and getting secured. Thankfully we were able to do so without damaging the boat.
On Saturday afternoon Chris came and picked us up and we went over to visit with him and his family. They took us over to a very quaint winery where he had proposed to his wife. We had a wonderful time there, then came home and had dinner before heading back to the boat. Sunday morning we woke up early and left the dock before the wind came up so that we would not have to struggle getting out between the pilings. We set sail across Tampa Bay, and after an hour or so, the wind totally fizzled and we were forced to motor the rest of the way.
We reached St Petersburg just after noon, picked up a mooring ball and then prepared to lower the dinghy. It was then that we discovered we had a stowaway! A small crab was hiding under our engine mount on the back of the boat. We left him alone and he was gone when we returned from our afternoon. Or was he….
We spent an afternoon catching up with our friend Jane. They had their engine blow too – in Mobile – but they ended up having to replace it. We spent an afternoon catching up with each other’s adventures before heading over to get something to eat. The next day after work we wandered around town and explored the waterfront areas, then went over and had drinks and snacks with Jane and her husband Bryce.
Tuesday morning we went into town for coffee and breakfast, explored the back streets a little and spoke to a few of the locals before heading back to the boat and leaving. 11:30 we were fueled up, checked out and into Tampa Bay. We motored out along with a number of Thistles that were preparing for a race. It looked like they were doing their National championships! The wind pooped after a half hour or so and we ended up motor sailing all the way out of Tampa Bay. Once into the open ocean, the wind picked up a little and switched to the North and we were able to turn off the motor and make good way under sail.
We took the main sail down because the wind was blanketing the jib, and in the event of an emergency it was easier to deal with the jib than the Mainsail. We decided that Melanie would take first watch, and shortly after sunset, the wind changed around to the east and Melanie was able to put up the staysail. The wind continued to strengthen until we were forced to reef the Yankee. With a third of the Yankee and the staysail we were still doing five knots. When the Yankee was fully unrolled we were doing almost 7 and the boat was verging on out of control; too much for the autopilot to handle.
The winds were between 25 and 30. Never fails, no wind during the day and then it blows like stink at night when you can’t see anything! When the wind was out of the north we had been rolling downwind, but when the wind changed over to the East the boat heeled over and was a little bit steadier. I went back down after helping to reef the jib and tried to sleep. I must have slept because Melanie had to wake me around 2 so I could take over. The wind was a steady 20 knots on the nose, about 60 degrees off. We were making between 4 and 5 knots with just two jibs.
The wind gradually dropped down even more during the night until we were only doing about two and a half knots, so I raised the main and that increased the speed to between 4 1/2 and 5. We sailed until late morning, then the wind switched to the south and died so we decided to motor into Fort Myers. We tried to get a mooring ball but there was nothing open, so we ended up anchoring just north of the Matanzas bridge which was in close proximity to the dinghy dock.
We went ashore and ate dinner and then walked around for a while. Next day I worked like a dog on an issue we were having at work and did make some progress thankfully. Then we went in and had a drink, walked around town and did some shopping for gifts for the grandkids. We ran into somebody with a buckeye t-shirt on, and later back at the Inn, saw him again. We had stopped for a nightcap on the way back to the boat and it turned out he is a boater and owns a house at Put-In-Bay! Small world. We exchanged information and when we return, we will visit them. We enjoyed our talk with Chris and Barb and then headed back to the boat.
Next morning we awoke early and the wind was out of the West. We hauled the anchor, stopped to get ice and then headed out for Key West. The wind was light, we put up the main and Yankee and made a good 3.5 to 5 knots south in the morning. The wind was expected to change to the Northeast and come up a substantially so it should have been a fairly quick ride.
Of course the wind change did not materialize, it did however swing slightly more to the north which made for a very rolly trip. The waves would push the stern and boat would roll thru 15 to 20 degrees. During the day we had visits from dolphins twice, the second time they spent almost an hour playing in our wake. Windsor was so excited, we stood on the bow and he watched transfixed as they swam underneath us and rolled on their bellies to get a look at him. It was quite a sight to to see.
I took first watch, and based on the weather forecast we decided to reef the main for the night. At sunset I put in a reef and Melanie went to bed. It slowed us down a little bit but not by much. We were still rolling a lot, the seas were only one to two feet but every once in a while a 4 footer would come by and that’s what really would throw everything off. Cans of food were flying down stairs and it was just miserable to be down below. The sun set without much fanfare. I still think the best sunsets I have ever seen were on Lake Erie. There were no clouds so the sky simply changed to a dirty Orange dusty color after the sunset and the band gradually got narrower until the sky was black. Pretty colors but not much in the way of contrast. The sky looked the same pretty much everywhere to the west.
The moon came up around 7:30. At first all you could see was a faint yellow glow on the eastern horizon. Then it gradually got brighter and brighter until a buttery orange moon crept up above the clouds on the horizon. Ever so slowly, almost like a giant eyeball opening. It was a full moon so once up in sky there was plenty of light illuminating the sea around us. It almost drowned out all but the brightest of stars.
The wind strengthened a little until it was between 16 and 20 knots. Wind direction was still about 150 degrees off starboard and the waves were getting bigger which made it more difficult for the autopilot to steer properly. At 8 p.m. the key West Express came by at about 40 miles an hour. They make it from Key West to Fort Myers in 4 hours. Sometimes I wish we could go that fast too. With the increase in wind, we were going faster but we were still rolling a lot. The wind direction with respect to our direction of travel made it a very uncomfortable ride. Melanie had a hard time sleeping while off watch.
As the moon rose higher in the sky, it created a golden path that ran right through our boat. It lit up the water and you could see the waves and the wind on the water as we moved along. Our speed went from 4-5 knots up to 6 plus! We were gobbling up the miles quickly.
The wind was supposed to change to the north east during the night and strengthen but at 3 a.m. it had dropped to 10 to 15 and was still blowing out of the north. It did switch slightly but not as far as was expected. This did make for a horribly uncomfortable ride. Probably the worst night of sailing we have had because we were unable to stop the boat from rolling through at times 25 to 30 degrees so it was impossible to go down below and sleep. We both tried to cat nap in the cockpit, I went down for a short while to try to sleep and pretty much just laid there while the boat rocked. Eventually I got tired of that and came up on deck around 1 and Melanie went down below and tried to sleep. The wind did calm down a little bit but the waves were coming from an awkward direction so there was no respite.
Even though the wind did not materialize as expected, we were still able to make pretty good time as the waves, although creating uncomfortable ride were pushing us along and helping us to maintain a fairly decent to speed. By 4:30 a.m. we were just 15 miles from our waypoint which was at the entrance of the northwest channel to Key West. We had hoped that during the night we would see the Southern Cross once again, but there was so much light cast by the moon on the water and in the sky that it drowned out most of the stars. We were only able to see the brightest constellations and there appeared to be layer of cloud on the horizon so we did not see her.
Just before sunrise the wind finally made the switch to the Northeast which made traveling a little smoother. It stayed a steady 10 to 15 so we were able to make good progress without having to fight for every yard. As we approach to Key West, you could start to smell land. It was quite an unusual experience, the smell was almost like burning plastic, not quite sure what it could have been but it’s definitely civilization. Around 6 a.m. the stars started to fade as the eastern sky started to lighten. It is pretty subtle at first and then it gradually got brighter and brighter. The moon was still up and was casting its long golden shadow on the water on the west side of the boat.
The sky in the east brightened, and the black gave way to a dark midnight blue with just a hint of pink near the horizon which changed to a pale buttery yellow. It showed up as a band near the horizon and the as the sky brightened, the band got thicker and the midnight blue of the night sky was chased away from the horizon. The band of yellow lifted and was replaced at the horizon by a band of orange and pink. That band gradually got brighter and brighter and the sky brightened until the sun slowly poked up above the ocean.
In the distance off the port bow order you could see the lights of Key West. Over the radio I heard the captain of a cruise ship announcing their arrival. The ship dwarfed the city! Eventually the navigation lights for the Northwest channel came into view, the flashing red guiding us towards safe water. Taking a direct route would put you in 1 to 2 feet of water, so you have to go down to the channel which is a little longer, but well marked and it guides you through the shallows safely into Key West Harbor.
About 4 miles from the channel entrance the forecasted wind finally arrived which created a very confused 6-9 foot chop in the shallow water. We were surfing down waves coming at us from two or three different directions. Once into the channel there is a breakwall at water level which knocks the waves down so you can safely make the turn. Once into the channel we rolled up the Yankee as winds were gusting up over 30! We hardened up to a close reach and were rolling along between 5 and 7, heeled over about 15 to 20 degrees. The skies were clear with scruffy clouds and the water was that Key West greeny turquoise and even though the fetch was short, whitecaps abounded.
We came trucking into the harbor like a bulldozer doing 50 on the highway, and rounded up near the cruise ship, dropped the main and then motored up to our anchorage. We had to use the staysail to get to the anchor spot because the wind was blowing so hard that our little 20HP motor could not make way against the wind! We went back to our original anchorage and dropped anchor, exhausted but exhilarated after a great ride. We celebrated our return with a good cup of Irish coffee before heading into shore. Back in Key West again!