Thursday, April 6, 2023

Happy Sailor's Heart

I have felt a little funny about some of my recent posts. In reporting on real-life-on-the-water, I kept feeling like I was being negative or telling stories about drudgery rather than the blissful days that I had expected; perhaps some of y’all had expected too. Well, bliss has arrived and will be emphasized in future. 

My last two project boats kept me off the water for several years; far too long. As a result, when I got back on the water aboard sv Ruth Ann, I was feeling like a rookie again. It didn’t help that winter weather was chasing me down the coast when we first started moving. On top of all that, I had installed the new-to-me engine and re-rigged the boat’s mast myself. Once we were moving, I had to learn all the creaks and groans of my boat while trying to determine which noises were normal and which needed attention. I was kind of on edge and Imposter Syndrome was hitting me hard. 

When I finally arrived in warmer waters and could slow down, it occurred to me that I had just traveled about 900 miles and put nearly two hundred hours on the engine that I had installed. I must have done alright or something would have slowed me down or stopped me along the way.  

And then I finally started sailing. 

It took some doing to combat the inertia of just hanging out and rationalizing with my discomfort, but I gave myself a mental shake and set the boat up for sailing. The anchorage where Ruth Ann and I have been is in the South Fork of the St. Lucie River and there is a nice, wide open area in the North Fork not far away. I got out and started sailing!! I can’t explain how important that was. 

The first day, I only hoisted the jib. There was plenty of wind and it was good practice to tack the jib between the forestay and the staysail stay on Ruth Ann’s bow. Soon after, I was sailing with jib and main. The North Fork reminds me of the three sections of Thornapple Lake in Michigan where I did much of my early sailing as a kid. There is a small patch of water separated from a wider area by a point that pinches the river from the north shore. Beyond that point is a large expanse of water, deep enough out to its edges for some really good sailing. I got lots of practice. 

And then my friend Nancy came for a visit. We motored up the North Fork of the river so that I could introduce her, in person, to some friends that she had introduced to me online. After hanging out for Cockpit Coffee with The Sail Bums on Sunday morning, Nancy and I were going to sail back down the river. The wind was a little boisterous that day and had I been by myself, I could have easily rationalized my way out of sailing, but I was too proud to wimp out in front of an old friend. Turns out, it was a great afternoon of sailing! My confidence got a boost.

Watching the weather, we adjusted our schedule and decided to hang out on Monday for a day of rest and then go offshore on Tuesday. The weather gods had decided to shine upon us. We got up and had breakfast, stopped by the neighborhood marina for some fuel, and headed down the river to the ocean. I thought I had gotten away from obnoxious and clueless drivers when I got off the highway, but a lot of those fools own boats and traffic is traffic. But the day was so nice it overshadowed the other boats. We got down the river, through a couple curves, and past the Manatee Pocket Channel. After crossing the Intra Coastal Waterway (ICW), we motored out the St. Lucie Inlet, got past the last channel marker, into the ociean, raised the sails, and turned off the engine. 

It is always a pleasure to turn the engine off and start sailing. The first moments are so wonderfully silent by contrast to the rattle and hum of the diesel. But to have had that peaceful moment after stopping the engine and see only water before us … was just plain magical. In fact, as we headed out, because the Florida peninsula leans toward the southeast, the water surrounded us from well west of north all the way around to nearly straight south of us. There was nothing between us and the Bahamas.

Such a good feeling. 

As on Sunday, I was letting Nancy steer and call the tacks to share the experience and what little knowledge I could offer. She has been sailing a while now and was doing great, but Ruth Ann was in her glory. I love my little boat! She is just right for me and loves to sail. We meandered off to the northeast watching the time to determine when we should turn around. There was a little more than three hours of daylight left, but neither Nancy or I, nor especially Ruth Ann, wanted to turn around. 

Eventually, we did tack out to the east and then again southwest toward the inlet. On the way in, we tacked twice more to aim our course right at the outer St. Lucie buoy. The wind was straight out of the south and steady; not strong but just right. 

Once we got close to the outer buoy, I had an idea; a challenge had occurred to me. I told Nancy that I wanted to take over the helm and attempt to sail all the way into the inlet without turning the engine on. 

From the ocean, the St. Lucie Inlet begins almost straight west toward the shore. About halfway in, there is a dogleg to port and then a gentle curve to starboard as the inlet approaches the ICW. The south wind had eased but was nearly perfect. We were on a beam reach to the dogleg, and then a close reach swinging to a broad reach as we got around the curve. I assured my crew that I wouldn’t do anything stupid, but I wanted to keep the engine off. I thought that I could turn up the ICW and run with the wind behind us, but I planned to start the engine as we approached our destination. 

When I glanced at the water sluicing past a channel marker, I realized that we were going up against the outgoing tide. The gentle wind was just enough to push my beautiful boat up current. We were doing less than a knot (about 1.15 mph) much of the time. At least twice, I saw our speed bottom out to zero, but we made it through the spots where the tide was rushing and sallied forth. Basically dead ahead of us, the sun was going down in the west and it was beautiful. I was so full of joy I could hardly stand still. That was just what I needed; just the right challenge to break the crust off my neglected sailor’s heart. 

We jibed and headed north with the wind behind us, angling out of the channel, across some open water, and cutting the corner toward the ICW. I was beaming and so excited! We were ghosting along, but it was just after sunset and almost no one else was on the water. Once we had the wind behind us, we were sailing wing on wing for a time and I had to be very careful to mind the sails and not let the boom crash across the boat. 

It was getting quite dark, but we were headed toward the Stuart Causeway where the bridge was all lit up. Many of the channel markers along the way were unlit day markers, which I occasionally flashed with a powerful flashlight to eye the channel. Approaching the bridge, it was about time to consider turning on the engine. To get to the Marriott anchorage, I had to turn east into their channel and then south again just past the first pair of private channel marks. And then the wind shifted! Just a small veer in the wind opened up the possibility of sailing on without the engine!!  

Right near the marina channel, I had drifted to port while observing the changing conditions and Nancy called out “Depth says two feet. Two point four!” I quickly steered back into the ICW and aimed for the private channel. That would have stopped us in our tracks, but luckily my temporary depthsounder is measuring the water under the keel, not the depth of the water around us. Ruth Ann draws three and a half feet, so 2.4’ on the depth display is actually almost six feet of water. 

Unscathed, we sailed toward the Marriott Resort, a huge golf and tennis complex with a marina full of fancy fishing boats. Their channel markers were unlit, of course, so I shined the flashlight toward the bright lights of the resort and picked up a pair of marks in the water a dozen yards or so off the ICW. With the veering wind behind us, I could easily turn out of the channel and into the anchorage on a broad reach again. We came in past a mast-less sailboat that I saw the last time I had been in that anchorage. There was another small cruiser near the entrance, a catamaran further back, and another boat I could just make out in the darkness. 

Our route off the ocean (yellow line)

We had made it from out on the ocean all the way into the anchorage – under sail alone!!! My happy sailor’s heart could have burst open! Most importantly for me, my confidence in myself and in my boat, had skyrocketed. I was suddenly my old sailor self again. I had been reborn! 

Then I made a small strategic error. I was trying to decide if I should go past the catamaran or turn into the wind before I got there. My initial plan was to sail astern of the catamaran, to where there was lots of open water behind them, but also another boat. That other boat was lying differently in the light wind than the catamaran. At the last minute, I decided that I should turn before the catamaran and avoid getting near the other boat off in the darkness. Turning straight into the wind is a way to nearly stop a sailboat. There was a little tidal current, just a breath of wind, and Ruth Ann started to drift toward the catamaran; a boat probably worth more than all I had made in the last five years. My sails were already hanging limply and I could not get Ruth Ann to steer. If there is no water moving past the rudder, the rudder will not steer the boat. It was time to start the engine. 


I fired up the Yanmar and we moved about fifty yards -- less than five minutes of motoring -- to anchor safely west of the boats that were already there. I don’t even count those five minutes. We had patiently sailed for almost four hours, roughly four miles, squeezing every foot out of each breath of wind. We had gotten all the way into the anchorage that was our destination. I will take that as a win!! 

Wow! What a glorious day of sailing!! I will be bragging about it forever more. Plus, I had a friend with me, I had a witness, I can claim it! That has not always been the case.


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