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by David Nichols - Austin, Texas - USA

Making Westing at Last

Finally, all the projects were completed. I drove the trailer to Austin and flew back to Tampa and Clearwater. Actually Dunedin, as we had moved the boat to the municipal docks there. The marina in Dunedin is a nice facility right in the center of a very nice little town just up the ICW from Clearwater. We added provisions to the boat, looked carefully at the weather and on June 19th, Father's Day, left Dunedin early in the morning.

The trip home started on June 20th in the evening. The difference in the days is a result of a number of mistakes made by the captain. The best of these mistakes has to do with the Racor Fuel filter and goes rapidly downhill from there.

I, the captain, console myself with the notion that things happen for a reason and it was important that we somehow leave on the 20th rather than the 19th. I find comfort in the idea that the lessons learned; some expensive and dealing with properly securing the inflatable and some not so expensive, like the 500 Racor fuel filter were necessary to prevent us leaving on the 19th. I find solace in the knowledge that had we left on the 19th we would have, perhaps, crossed paths with a school of large mutant Great White Sharks and as a result would have joined other sailors in Davey Jones' Locker. But by leaving on the 20th this disaster was avoided.

So on June 20th Valora, Gene, and I cleared the Clearwater Pass bell buoy at 8:00 PM (2000 hours) and set a course with the auto pilot for Carabelle Florida, 151 miles of open water to the West Northwest.

It was suggested by a friend that we delay our departure until the morning of the 21st but I felt that by leaving in the evening we would make the bell buoy at Carrabelle in the early morning, best case, or mid day if things didn't go quite as planned. Given how the 19th went, it seemed like a very good plan.

Gene was throwing something together to eat as we cleared the buoy. It wasn't elaborate because there was a somewhat nasty chop. I don't remember what it was but I was still trying to recover from the 19th. Odysseus, or Ulysses for Latin fans, certainly had far worse days than I had on the 19th but that wasn't a hell of a lot of comfort as I watched Clearwater and the bell buoy slip below the horizon. I think I was focused on having missed the Mutant Great White Sharks and that was why I don't remember what we had to eat.

I was still at the helm as the sun set. I didn't think to take a photo even though it was truly beautiful sunset. I was still consoling myself. At 9:30 I turned the helm over to Gene and went below to get some sleep. My watch started at 2:00 AM (0200 hours).

When I came up on deck at 2:00 AM (0200 hours) the moon was shining so brightly it was almost like daylight. The gulf sparkled with moonlight and Valora's wake glittered with bioluminescence. It was if she was dragging blue green stars behind her. It was magical and I hadn't ever seen anything quite so beautiful.

I was mesmerized by it all and barely mumbled, "I have the helm." Gene smiled and nodded, words seemed somehow out of place but he did quietly say, "We're on course and making good time" as he went below.

I sat down and watched Valora's bioluminescence trail. One of the benefits of being at least 20 miles offshore is not having to worry about running aground. There were no oil rigs and the sea was empty of other boats so I could just be in the moment.

That moment or I should say that night was very Zen. Here I was, miles from land, cradled securely by my boat. I remember thinking; this must be what the astronauts feel, this must be what sailors for thousands of years have felt. The only thing protecting me was my ship as I moved across the surface of my other ship, the space ship earth.

Everything was in motion; the moon, the stars, and the sea. Valora and I were part of that motion as we moved across the gulf and the Universe. That moment, that night, was a bonding moment with Valora. I have always anthropomorphised boats without really understanding why but that night made it very clear why sailors refer to their boats and ships as female gender.

When put into words that night might sound trite or cliché but I hope not. Any sailor that has made an open water passage will probably understand what I experienced. Regardless, that night was anything but trite or cliché.

So moonlight finally gave way to grey dawn in the East and the dawn slowly outshone the stars. The flora and fauna that gave Valora her sparkling trail sank back to the depths as the sun rose.

It was an incredible sunrise and this time I remembered the camera and took a picture.

I went below to put the camera up and just as I came on deck a pod of about 30 Atlantic dolphins erupted around the boat. The water was very clear and I could see them as they darted back and forth under the boat. Several times a dolphin would break the surface right next to the boat. I wanted desperately to touch those beautiful creatures as they played next to Valora but they were always just out of reach, no matter how I stretched.

Then, as suddenly as they appeared they disappeared; gone, as if it never happened. The surface of the Gulf was unbroken as Valora and the waves rolled on. The dolphins seemed to be a perfect ending to the night and a perfect beginning to the day.

My watch ended shortly after the dolphins disappeared. I ate breakfast on deck with Gene and we talked about the dolphins and the night before. His only comment was, "That's why open water trips are so important, you bond with your boat." I went below and actually managed to go to sleep. More dolphins showed up on Gene's watch, played briefly and then vanished. The weather cooperated and the day passed without much happening.

We had decided to not do four hour watches. It was just Gene and I so four hour watches would have quickly exhausted us. Because Gene slept most of the night he stood a long watch during the day and I took over at 6:00 PM (1800 hours).

The sun set at 8:30 PM (2030 hours) and like the day before it was beautiful. There were a few clouds so we didn't see a green flash. I looked but no green flash.

The longest day of the year ended and summer began with me at the helm of my boat. The day had started with dolphins and ended with a great sunset. We were 24 hours out of Clearwater with about 12 hours left to Carrabelle. Life should be like this all the time.

I had another beautiful night to look forward to; the moon would rise a bit later tonight so I would have a little longer to marvel at the staggering number of stars visible where the only light pollution is Valora's running lights.

I wasn't disappointed in the stars or the moonrise or Valora's trail of green sparkles. We all moved in sync but tonight I was very aware of how very, very small Valora and I were and I thought about the Breton Fisherman's prayer. "Oh God thy sea is so large and my boat so small"... I wonder if it is possible to maintain an inflated ego while sailing on the ocean in a small boat. I certainly couldn't.

Dawn and another incredible sunrise but the rising sun seemed to extinguish the wind.

So when we arrived at the Carrabelle buoy we were under power and the Gulf was almost flat.

After Dunedin, Carrabelle seemed a bit dog eared. There was not much to Carrabelle; a fairly nice marina/motel and a food market and hardware with in walking distance. And unlike Dunedin, it was hot in Carrabelle. It was hot even before we got to Carrabelle and we put up the sun shade.

The sun shade was a welcome addition and Gene gets credit for creating a very usable sun shade from PVC pipe and a cheap tarp from Lowe's.

It was so hot, even with the sun shade, that I decided to get a room in the motel. The AC in the motel room was a Sirens song and trying to sleep on the boat in the sweltering heat of the Florida Panhandle had zero appeal. Actually, the Marina had a deal so we got the room at a discount because Valora was docked in their slip.

In addition to the heat, it had been a long 36 hours without a great deal of sleep and what I wanted was ice cold AC and 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep. So, Valora was left alone while we slept from about noon to 8 the next morning, much more than 10 hours.

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