The general course of the waterway is around 62 degrees. In the easterly breeze, we could only point to about 30 degrees, sometimes 40 and sometimes only 20, so long and short tacks would be the order of the evening and night. The sailing was straightforward, except I headed us for a shoal shortly after dark. The GPS was zoomed out too far and the shoal was covered by the triangular icon marking the boat’s position. Fortunately, Gary saw it (or rather saw the birds standing on the sandbar) and we tacked away after only bumping the leeboard.
It took several short tacks to clear the pass through Shell Key Banks, bumping the leeboard a time or two. Just beyond was a relatively constricted area of the ICW, with shoals on both sides. But we noticed by cutting north of the channel we had open, deep, and unobstructed water, so we did our tacking there, cutting back to the ICW after the shoal areas. The wind lessened slightly, and our speed went from 5 to 5.5 knots to around 4 to 4.5. However, the night was so lovely, with a three quarters moon, that we didn’t mind. Our original plan had been to clear Bowlegs Cut and then anchor behind Lignumvitae or Shell keys for the night, to break up the long day, but in ideal conditions and being well rested, there was no reason to stop. We noted how areas of the water, which would appear a cloudy emerald color in the daylight, took on a milky hue at night and at places merged seamlessly with the horizon. Orion headed for the west, while Scorpio rose behind the boat.
By 11:20 p.m., we were at Cowpens Cut in Cross Key Bank which passes through a mangrove bank that blocks even strong easterlies. I have no idea how to calculate the tidal flows in Cowpens Cut, but for the fourth time out of four tries, we got there with a favorable current and easily rowed through. Once through we cut north of the ICW to open water again to avoid shoals lining the waterway. It was the homestretch now. A couple of tacks and three miles later was the short stretch where the ICW bends to the north northwest and we had a blessed – and short – few minutes with the wind aft of the beam.
When the ICW turned back the east northeast, a couple things happened. The wind eased a bit to the south and lightened. We went slower, but only one tack was needed in the four-mile beat to Baker Cut, the entrance to Sunset Cove and the finish line. We ambled though a long tack to shore and then rowed in as the wind was shadowed by the trees and buildings, landing just after 3:00 am. It had been a spectacular day of sailing and a wonderful end to our Everglades Challenge.
Every EC is unique. The delayed start this year may have actually been a handicap. If we had started normally on Saturday with the fresh northeasterlies, I would have expected to have made it far past the first checkpoint in 24 hours, probably, as we did in 2016, into northern Pine Island Sound (assuming minimal delay for foul currents by Boca Grande). I don’t think crossing Tampa Bay would have been a severe challenge despite the 18 knot winds. Unlike 2015 when there was a strong incoming tide, the tide this year would not start coming into until a couple hours after the start and I expect all competitors would have been across the bay. The other feature was the unrelenting east winds. Probably less than 10 miles were sailed with wind aft of the beam and much of the sailing was hard on the wind if not actually beating. It was the most “windward” of any EC I’ve done. It reinforced my respect for the folks who paddle, sail assisted or not, the course. As hard as parts were for us, it had to be exponentially more difficult for them. It speaks well of the preparation and skill of the WaterTribers that of the 77 boats that actually did start on Sunday, 53 made it to the finish. Hats off to all who participated and a two-oar salute to those who finished.