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by Gary and Helen Blankenship Tallahassee, Florida - USA

I'm sitting in Oaracle, my Jim Michalak-designed Frolic2 sailboat in Indian Key Pass with my friend Gary Sabitsch. It's a Saturday mid-afternoon and we're beating into the pass in a 15-20 knot northeasterly against a slightly outgoing tide. The occasional powerboat and National Park Service tourist boat rumbles by. It's three months before the start of the 2016 Everglades Challenge and we're practicing on one of the trickiest parts of the 300-mile course - traversing through the Ten Thousand Islands (the northwestern edge of Everglades National Park) to get to the second EC checkpoint at Chokoloskee.

Gary Sabitsch looks over our anchorage on the northeast side of Chokoloskee Island.

It's mostly cloudy but with plenty of blue sky, although there are a couple rain clouds in the area. We left in the morning after anchoring the previous night just off Chokoloskee, about three miles from Everglades City. We wound our way out Rabbit Key Pass with little problem (well, we bumped the bottom once; somewhere there's an unbreakable law of physics that I must contact the bottom getting from Chokoloskee Bay to the mangrove islands at the start of the pass) getting to Gullivan Bay. Gary spied a manatee on the way out (my back was turned) and we marveled at the bird life.

Oaracle approaches the end of Rabbit Key Pass.
A mangrove island toward the end of Rabbit Key Pass – one of the Ten Thousand islands section of Everglades National Park.
An osprey nest on the way out Rabbit Key Pass.
As osprey perches on top of a tree on a mangrove island in Rabbit Key Pass.

Once out of the pass, Oaracle reached up the islands, surging along at hull speed or a little better with one reef in the sail. The proximity of the islands to windward kept the sea from getting rough and it was a glorious day with mild temperatures.

The water is starting to whitecap as we reach up Gullivan Bay on the west side of the Ten Thousand Islands, but the closeness of the land keeps the waves from getting big.

Soon we're passing Indian Key and we look at the start of the channel (it can be entered either north or south of the key). But it's early so we carry on reaching up the bay. I'm relishing the chance to see some of the other islands that I've bypassed in prior ECs. Some appear to be impenetrable mangroves, but I'm surprised to see some very nice beaches. Finally, I understand why kayakers in the EC like this area. I've always approached Indian Key from the west after rounding Cape Romano. Kayakers come in Big Marcos pass, or maybe Caxambas Inlet and then approach from the northwest, coming down the bay. If they're tired or know the timing isn't going to be right to catch the tide going in Indian Key Pass, there are a number of attractive camping areas for the weary paddler.

Gary and I succumb to the temptation and pull over to the lovely beach on Camp Lulu Key (where do they get these names?). We stretch our legs, pick over the plentiful shells, and enjoy the seclusion. We take the opportunity and put the second reef in Oaracle's mainsail. It's probably not needed, but there were a couple pretty good puffs earlier on the water that got my attention and we're in no hurry. We slide Oaracle off the beach and reach back down the islands toward Indian Key.

The lovely beach on Camp Lulu Key. Makes you want to pitch a tent and camp.

Around 1:45 p. m., we're on the north side of Indian Key. Low tide is around 3:30, so there will be a little adverse tidal current, especially as we get further up the channel where it narrows considerably. Low tide in Chokoloskee Bay is nearly two hours later than at Indian Key, so it's unlikely the adverse tide will abate while we're in the pass. The original plan was to start up the pass around low tide, but we're here early so why not start now? It's not a particularly big tidal change so the currents hopefully won't be too bad. The rules for the Everglades Challenge prohibit the use of a motor, except for electric propulsion that is allowed in the experimental class 6. We're in the Class 4, monohulls, so of course we won't be using a motor. Sort of an academic question anyway, since Oaracle doesn't have any non-sail propulsion, except for two oars made from a cast off double paddle and a couple of paddles for short distances and tight places.

Traffic is light in the channel, just an occasional powerboat or National Park Service tour boat. We saw a couple kayaks out on Gullivan Bay, but there aren't any here in the pass, perhaps because of the foul tide. I find myself pondering the difference between us and the motorboats. From where we entered the pass, it's probably a bit under five nautical miles to reach Chokoloskee Bay. For the powerboats, it's a 15 or 20 minute jaunt and any tidal current either foul or favorable is an afterthought. For us on this day, it will take about three hours. Yet I never got impatient or felt bored. There's navigation to do, wildlife to watch, and sailing to be done. Gary sees another manatee (my back is turned again) and we see some dolphins trap a school of fish against a very shallow area. The water explodes and the fish churn and thrash and try to escape. A few minutes later the dolphins swim by, perhaps to give us a cursory look.

One of the islands along Indian Key Pass. Some have beaches, but most offer no place to land.

When traversing Indian Key Pass from west to east, it starts wide but with each dogleg in the course, the channel narrows. In places, the water seems wide but in reality is too shallow for sailing once outside the channel. The wind also isn't blowing directly down the channel for much of the course, which means as we approach the mangrove islands on one side, the wind may be partially blocked. I debate shaking out at least one reef since we are in protected water, but decide to leave both reefs in; we're in no hurry.

Gary is at the helm when we round a corner and hit the first really narrow part of the pass. He has been sailing for a few years and we've been out in Oaracle several times, practicing for the EC. But this is something most sailors don't deal with: an adverse tide, potentially fluky winds, and water barely wide enough to get up momentum before having to tack again. But he and Oaracle handle it like pros, never missing stays and making steady progress against the tide.

Some of the passing clouds coalesce into a clot of rain. We get brushed by a sprinkle that comes with some extra gusts of wind. I'm pretty sure we would have handled it without problem with one reef but there might have been a few hairy seconds if the full sail had been up. But as a benefit, we get treated to a fully arched rainbow that at times spans the channel ahead.

A passing sprinkle gave us this rainbow. You can see where the pot of gold should be, right over there, in the shallows, with the undoubtedly muddy bottom. We’ll settle for the rich experience.
The course is between the channel markers and under the arch.
Doesn’t get any better than this.

Eventually, I take over the helm to have some of the fun. Tack, get up speed, tack again. Hold a tack too long and the leeboard kicks up and will have to be reset while tacking. When the occasional powerboat comes along, factor into the tacking the necessity to keep clear. Oaracle's in her element with her pivoting leeboard and rudder. Boats with daggerboards and fixed rudders would be considerably less, um, carefree. The balanced lugsail is self tending and there's no jib to resheet.

“Ready about . . . .” I start a tack in a narrow part of Indian Key Pass. We’ll be tacking back as soon as we reach the mangrove island behind the boat.

A couple weeks later, I asked Gary how many times he thought we tacked getting up the channel. He guesses about 100, which was my initial estimate. I downloaded the track from the GPS - and got a good laugh. The course in its memory looked like a deranged doodle. The GPS was set to record a position every 90 seconds. Since some of our tacks were lasting only 60 to 90 seconds, the unit couldn't accurately record all the zigs and zags. A couple places where we made several tacks got recorded as a straight line as we were in mid channel when the GPS recorded the location.

We can't really get an accurate count of the tacks from the electronic record. So we'll stick with the estimate of around 100.

Eventually, we reach Chokoloskee Bay. But the short tacks continue as the channel to Everglades City is narrow and, at least for the first part, there are shoals on either side. Once a ways past Marker 26, we bear to the southeast, past the last shoal there. I cut it too close and the leeboard bumps a couple times, but there's enough water for Oaracle to pass over. We sail down the bay to Chokoloskee, look at the beach that is the second checkpoint for the EC and then sail around the island to anchor for the night. We'll pull the boat out of the water at dawn, and then drive home.

I keep thinking about the powerboats that ran the pass in those 15 to 20 minutes. I have nothing against powerboats; it's not my preferred way to be on the water but I don't begrudge it to other people. Hopefully, for those boats that day, it wasn't just a routine passage through the channel on the way to somewhere else. For me, it will always be the time after a wonderful day on the water, we beat into Indian Key Pass against the tide and the wind and were rewarded with a manatee, dolphins, birds, a rainbow, and some great sailing.

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