A November Passage in The Gulf of Mexico
In hindsight, it was one hell of an adventure.
But it started out painfully slow. We had nine days to sail 400 nautical miles from Panama City to Key West. Plenty of time, I thought, to wait out imperfect weather or deal with unanticipated trouble. My wife, Maribeth, arrived on November 9th. Scott, our crew for this leg, arrived on the 11th. He walked down the dock with a backpack and a swagger that reminded me of that slow-motion astronaut scene from “The Right Stuff:” confident, cocky, ready for adventure. He deflated a bit when I told him the weather would restrain us for a few days. A cold front was forecast to pass through. We did not want to be out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, with a few hundred miles of fetch, when a cold front arrived. Disappointed, we resolved to head east on the Intracoastal Waterway. It would not meaningfully shorten our trip, but we felt compelled to move. Going anywhere seemed better than sitting and waiting.
We motored past the fresh wreckage of Hurricane Michael, and anchored in East St. Andrews Bay and Saul Creek before reaching Apalachicola on the 13th. There, we spent two nights hunkered down at Scipio Creek Marina. The front came through, bringing wind and cold and rain, as we savored the luxuries of land living and prepared the boat for our passage to Key West.
Finally (FINALLY!,) on the 15th, we pointed the boat south and got underway. Almost immediately, we ran hard aground. The recent hurricane had left new shoals completely blocking Government Cut, our route through the barrier islands. Somehow, after an hour and a half of cursing and kedging, we managed to float free again. We quickly identified St. George Sound Inlet, 18 miles to the northeast, as our alternative way out. As the sun set, we finally reached unobstructed water stretching south nearly 400 miles to the Florida Keys.
Scott took the first night watch. We have a conservative overnight routine on La Peregrina. Everyone wears PFDs and harnesses when not below. Tethers keep us connected to the boat, either to jacklines on deck or to secure attachment points in the cockpit. While it’s still daylight, we reef the mainsail, even in light winds. The goal is to minimize any need to leave the cockpit during the night. In the rare case that someone must go on deck, a strict rule is that a second person must be awake and watching.
In actuality, most night watches are boring. The person on watch is typically the only person awake. Before dark, we set a course we believe we can maintain for many hours. An autopilot keeps the boat on a steady compass heading. The AIS will warn if a large boat is a potential collision risk. The job is mostly just to look around, keeping an eye open for lights from boats or navigation aids, noting course and speed and conditions in the logbook, glancing occasionally at the chart, checking the status of batteries and systems, maybe making a minor course adjustment or trimming a sail, perhaps stepping below briefly to visit the head or fix a snack ... Time can pass slowly.
It was a raucous ride that first night at sea. The wind blew at 30 knots. We sailed on a starboard tack under a deeply reefed main and staysail. The genoa was furled. The seas were 6+ feet but, blessedly, were from behind, and well spaced. It was terribly cold. I came on watch and realized quickly that all my layers of clothing were inadequate. Wedging myself in the narrow companionway, I tried to draw warmth from the glow of red lights in the cabin below. I peered through the dodger at the steady march of swells, the setting moon, the brilliant stars. There were no boats. We were alone in the darkness. The wind howled through the rigging. Spars banged. Occasionally, I was reassured by a snore from below. Big waves roared as they approached from behind, then picked up our stern and passed beneath us as the autopilot growled, keeping us on track. There was very little to do. I counted down the hours, then the quarter-hours, and then the minutes that remained on my watch.
When the time finally came, I went below to rouse Maribeth. I nudged her awake and gave her a quick watch report: no boats, no lights, no problems, the weather is stable, our course is fine. She gave me that puppy dog look: "Joe, do I really have to go out there in this cold, by myself?"
I paused. She was warm and safe and comfortable wrapped up in that blanket. But Maribeth is an experienced offshore sailor. She knows the drill. I told her to wake me if she needed anything. I saw her climb the ladder and clip her tether in the cockpit as I fell asleep. She confessed later that her fears were unfounded; she had enjoyed her watch.
We sailed south for three days. Out of prudence, we had prepared for harsh conditions. But it was glorious sailing. The night skies were filled with a billion stars, and the days were bright and cheerful. The wind and the seas slowly calmed. We shed our woolies and foulies in favor of shorts and t-shirts. We were making good time, so we decided to steer toward the Dry Tortugas. The last 50 miles were exceptional. The wind picked up, the seas were flat, our spirits were high, and we reached south at more than 7 knots. Before noon on the 18th, we were anchored peacefully in the protected water east of Fort Jefferson.
We spent a day exploring the fort before making the final 70 miles to Key West, arriving at dawn on November 20th. Over the previous nine days, we had dealt with a variety of conditions, overcome obstacles, and solved problems. We had been awed and humbled by nature. I had enjoyed the company of great crew. La Peregrina was happy. It seemed appropriate that Thanksgiving was only two days away. We dug deep into the refrigerator, pulled out an icy bottle, and drank champagne.