The rough conditions took a toll on competitors. Graham Byrnes (Roo) hurt his back somewhere in the area and had to retire with his lovely, red Core Sound 17 Mark3. Father-and-son team Paul and Alan Stewart (DanceswithSandy Bottom and SOS) were sailing Graham’s EC 22, originally built for the 2007 event. They came slamming off one of the waves and the forward mast snapped off four feet from the base (there had been some corrosion on the inside where it broke). They sailed back to Cape Haze Marina under mizzen, cut off the jagged part of the mast and made some other adjustments, restepped the shortened mast and restarted the following morning with a reefed main. Despite the delay, they still won Class 4 (monohulls).
And one kayaker (we talked with him but I failed to note his name) had waves break over the stern, breach the watertight rear hatches. and flood the aft end. He washed ashore north of Boca Grande Inlet.
We coped by coming closer to the wind to take the waves more on the bow, although than meant cutting a corner on the ICW and would necessitate finding a deep spot over a shoal. Fortunately, that proved easy with Oaracle’s 4-inch draft. It was just a matter of avoiding the part of the shoal where the birds were standing and the boat slid back into the ICW with no problem. One difficulty, though, was even with the double reef and nearly 400 pounds of live ballast on the high side, Oaracle was feeling occasionally over powered. I’m not much of a wind estimator, but I guess between the speed and the heeling, the winds were topping out at around 30 knots. We steered east of the ICW (as much as we could since we were nearly hard on the wind now) once in the broad part of Pine Island Sound to reduce the fetch of the waves, and soon came on a well-marked, extensive shoal, a couple inches deep. Gary suggested it would be a good spot to stop and put in the third reef. Which we did. I’ve had trouble before pointing above a close reach with the third reef, but sliding the downhaul forward on the boom cured that and we had no trouble once we got underway. The sail with three reefs is basically a low-aspect lateen and isn’t going to be the closest winded sail, but the speed was good.
We maintained better than 5 knots heading down the sound, dodging one other shoal. At the southern end, an incoming tide was opposing us, which became a major factor as we turned to the east. Progress was slow as we tacked with the shortened sail between Sanibel and St. James City in choppy water. The normal route here would be to pass under the west end of the causeway connecting Sanibel to the mainland. But that could be dicey with the easterly wind and still incoming current, plus there would be extra fetch for the strong wind to kick up the seas once out in the Gulf. So we proceeded east north eastward toward a narrow channel that leads to the high bridge at the eastern end of the causeway. Just before sunset, we pulled up at Picnic Island at the east end of the channel. Several other WaterTribers had already stopped there, many apparently to spend the night, including ZerotheHero and GreenMountainGal (Will and Amber Nye), Sawhorse (Meade Gougeon), and LowRider (J.F. Bedard) on his self-designed and built RoG (River of Grass) cat ketch. (J.F. Bedard’s account is in Small Craft Advisor, July/August, 2017.)
After a short break, we relaunched into the growing darkness and immediately encountered frustration. The winds were light, but we were reluctant to shake out any of the reefs because of the continued forecast of strong breezes. However, the moment she passed Picnic Island, Oaracle became unsteerable and sagged off to the north. For 30 or 40 minutes we did what I came to think of as dipsy-doodles going round and round as we drifted into shallow water, retraced our steps, tried again and had the same result. Finally, we returned to Picnic Island and shook out the third reef, figuring we might do better with more sail power. Fortunately, in the dark no one on the island has noticed our flailing, except ZerotheHero who thought a small fishing boat was having trouble anchoring. The extra sail worked and we managed to get free, but every time we passed another island the steering problems would recur. A look at the chart and a little brain power explained what was a happening. The channel was lined with small islands and sat at the confluence of Pine Island Sound, Matlacha Pass, the Caloosahatchee River, and San Carlos Bay. That intersection produced unpredictable currents, alternately blocked and unblocked by the islands. The wind remained light and we ultimately wound up rowing the last part of the channel until we could head south for the bridge. The rowing was livened up when the water exploded about 10 feet off the port side and a huge swirl of water shot ahead of the bow We figured we had woken a manatee. The wind freed and picked up as we made the turn for the bridge but it still took us from sunset until almost midnight to cover the handful of miles from Picnic Island to the Gulf of Mexico.
Once free from the frustrations of getting to the open Gulf, it was a lovely night. The waxing moon was more than half full, there were almost no clouds and the stars were in abundance. The second reef probably could have come out, but we decided to be cautious. Gary and I were planning to take turns at the helm with the offwatch sleeping below. Because Oaracle’s mast is offset to the port side, sleeping is done on the starboard side, or with the east wind, on the low side. Since the sleeper’s weight is low, it’s not as bad as it might seem, but we’re conservative with sail under such conditions. We were doing about 3.5 knots under the double reef, and after a couple hours that picked up to about 4.5 knots. Since we were close to shore, seas were negligible and we were not quite close hauled.