Everglades Challenge, 2017 – Part Four

by Gary Blankenship and Gary Sabitsch - Tallahassee, Florida - USA

The make-shift duct tape mast boot after I broke the original.

Compounding the water getting into the cabin is a couple of my homemade dry bags which had been perfect in past years, had developed leaks and become a wet bags, including the one containing our batteries. Some of those were ruined.

My venerable Garmin 76 GPS, first used in the 2007 EC, failed on the second day. We had Gary’s newer Garmin 78 as a backup, but because we had relied so heavily on the older one, we were unfamiliar with the workings of the newer model, and bouncing along in rough water was not the right time to be messing with the settings. That needed to be sorted out.

Another problem was the companionway slide. I had broken off a lower corner leaning back on it and that needed fixing. More personally, early on the second day when I bent over to reach something, Gary informed me that my foul weather pants were split up the back. For reasons irrelevant to relate here, I had bought them sight unseen and they were too light to the job. By the time we got to CP 2, they were splitting up the front as well. I needed a drier solution.

On the beach at Chokoloskee, tied off to stern of Penguinman’s Hobie Adenture Island. We thought we were through, but a changed weather forecast altered our plans.
A wide-angle shot of the beach at Checkpoint 2 near low tide. It’s not quite as deserted as it might seem as some kayaks have been pulled further up the beach, behind the camera. Oaracle’s bow is on sand, but off the stern is the infamous Chokoloskee mud, nemesis of many Everglades Challenge participants.

On top of that, our hand bailers were disintegrating. The quart-size plastic scoop was simply breaking into pieces, the plastic apparently having become brittle. The two-quart pitcher that doubled as a bailer and the all-important “pee bucket” had a crack halfway down the side.

The weather problem was quickly resolved. I told Toby Nipper (Whitecaps), one of the CP2 captains we were thinking of dropping out because of the weather. “I don’t allow that my checkpoint,” was his immediate reaction. Then he related that the forecast had changed drastically in our favor. There was nothing stronger than 10-15 knot winds, albeit from the east, for the next several days between CP2 and the finish. Why the forecast went from mayhem to moderate in one day I still don’t know, but we instantly resolved to keep going and began to address the rest of our problems.

Oaracle’s repair kit includes epoxy, clamps, and other necessary supplies so the broken corner of the companionway slide was soon stuck back in place and set in the sun to encourage quick curing of the resin. The crack in the pee bucket was reinforced with magical duct tape and held up fine to the end of the trip. I cut some vinyl from one of the failed dry bags and fashioned a new mast boot, held in place by shock cord and duct tape.

The remaining difficulties were addressed by the spirit of WaterTribe. The store across the street from the checkpoint had carried inexpensive foul weather gear in past years, but was out this year. Hearing of my pants problem, Chief, who was helping at the checkpoint, said he might have a solution. He produced the most perfect set of bib pants I’ve ever seen (made by Gill, if you’re curious) and said I could borrow them if they fit. They did, as if they had been tailored for me.

Whitecaps and Ridgerunner, both of whom had experience with the Garmin 78, worked out the problems we had with the settings and suddenly the unit became a snap to use. (I’ve since bought one to replace my 76.) We had planned to leave in the midmorning the next day (Wednesday) at high tide, but Gary came up with the sensible suggestion of leaving with the Tuesday night high tide and sailing down the Everglades coast at night.

Back to Whitecaps and Ridgerunner for advice. I always have trouble crossing the bay south of Chokoloskee to get to the passes through the mangroves that lead to the gulf. The chart shows a deep channel down the middle of the bay that runs to the mangroves with shoals on each side. For some reason, I had the notion there was a cut through on the south side shoal that leads to Rabbit Key Pass. There is not. Take the channel across the bay. When most of the way down the bay, a right turn goes into Chokoloskee pass. Otherwise, go to the mangroves, turn left and stay in the deep water that hugs the mangroves (also shown on the chart) until eventually a right turn leads into Rabbit Key pass. From that point, if you’ve run the pass before, it’s easy; there’s only one shoal to avoid.

We left at 10:10 pm and drifted down the island. It was notable for two reasons. One, it was the first time that Oaracle’s sail had been completely unreefed. And second, it was the first time the wind was not forward of the beam. Following Whitecaps and Ridgerunner’s advice, we made across the bay, bumping the leeboard only once. My best crossing ever – and at night! Thanks, guys. Once in the mangroves, the wind was largely blocked and we drifted along, helped by the tide and buzzed by the occasional mosquito. As we got toward more open waters near the Gulf, our pace picked up. Initially, we had been reluctant about a night departure because we wouldn’t be able to see the bit of the 10,000 islands that flank Rabbit Key Pass.  However, the moonlit passage was magical. Mangrove islands drifted by in the dim light with scarcely a ripple on the water. We even spotted the treetop osprey nest on the east side of a mangrove island near the end of the pass and which we had marveled at during two previous daylight trips. A bit over two hours after leaving, we were in the Gulf and heading south for Pavilion Key. Winds were 10 to 12 and we were averaging 4 to 5 knots. When we got to Pavilion, we headed a bit more easterly to follow the coast and the speed dropped a bit, either from the wind easing or us coming a bit closer to the wind – we were between close-hauled and hard on the wind. It was even lovelier than our coastal sail two nights before as it was a bit warmer, with less wind and no light pollution from shore. When he went below to sleep, Gary made me promise I would not pull another all-nighter with him below and I so pledged.  It was particularly enjoyable after his second nap to rouse him in time to watch a wonderful, orange moonset in the west.

At 6 am the weather decided to defy the forecast and the winds picked up to 15-20 knots and we put a reef in the sail. It became splashy going again, but Oaracle sped along averaging a bit over 5 knots. We rounded Northwest Cape Sable at 9:30, doing 5 to 6 knots and hardened up on the wind to reach Middle Cape covering the distance in a bit less than an hour. But we couldn’t harden up enough to reach East Cape without tacking, so it took about two hours to round the cape and enter Florida Bay and begin the 10-mile beat to Flamingo. As we were bouncing around East Cape, Gary spotted a big sea turtle, maybe 18 niches across, calmly treading water and looking around before spotting us and diving away.

Part One – Part Two – Part Three – Part Four – Part Five – Part Six

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