Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Hints of the Season

I have a community; the community of sailors. And more specifically, the community of vagabond cruisers, but I can almost miss a neighborhood community. I’ve been hanging around Stuart, Florida for  about three months. Last year, this same spot was my “neighborhood” too. The City is unusually friendly to vagabonds at anchor. There is a fairly large anchorage just into the South Fork of the St. Lucie River. Shepard Park is easily accessible by dinghy where there is water, trashcans, and a couple hundred of feet of cement wall with cleats to tie to and a few ladders to climb at low tide. Further, I picked up a part time job here and have a small gang of good friends from work. Nevertheless, besides that Hurricane Season is approaching, I am feeling the need to be moving again. Then again, we’ve had a couple storm systems roll through that have made the seasonal ramifications more stark. 

A couple weeks ago, a strong storm was forecast a few days in advance. I normally work Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons, but that Wednesday was going to be wild. It might not have been possible for me to get to shore and back that day. Luckily, one of my coworkers was happy to take a few extra hours and I could prepare for the storm. The winds were forecast to gust into the mid-thirties by late morning. 

Tuesday night I had worked until 8:30 pm. As I walked back to the park from the laundromat, the proverbial calm-before-the-storm had settled on the city. It was a pleasant evening as I passed the funky Cleveland Avenue neighborhood and crossed the creek by the boat dealership. On the other side of the creek was Shepard Park where my dinghy awaited. I loaded up the groceries I had bought before work and then filled a jerry jug with water at the fish cleaning station. After unlocking my oars, I shoved off and rowed the half mile across the river to Ruth Ann. 

After climbing aboard and putting things away, I changed my clothes and began my engine checks. The little Yanmar coughed and spit and then came to life. As it idled, I went forward to haul the anchor. The quarter moon struggled to shine through wispy clouds as Ruth Ann gurgled into the channel and toward the flashing green marker.  

There was a sand bar that I needed to avoid near the Sunset Bay Marina, but it is only marked by an unlit red nun buoy. I poked into the darkness with my flashlight as I passed the well lit marina. I steered close to the many boats in the mooring field where I knew the water was safe and finally located the red buoy after I was well past it. We were safe by then and I turned into the North Fork. 

A narrow “cove” is the first feature where we had to pass two unlit green markers nearby, but the area is wide with plenty of water. I have been able to cut the corner in the past, so I was more worried about bumping into one of the markers than running aground. It’s curious how well you can spot the pylon of a marker in the moonlight. Even before I could see the channel marker, the straight line of the pylon stood out against the rippling water. Once I was past the two greens, there was a red lighted marker just ahead.

Past that red marker, the North Fork opens up into a large lake-like area. I have gone up there to sail several times. That night, the porch lights and dock lights of homes along the shore made my boundaries distinct. It was a carefree sail up toward Kitching Cove. Well, not sail exactly, it was dark and I just wanted to beat the storm, so I was motoring. At the top of the “lake,” the entrance into Kitching Cove is quite narrow. If it was too dark, I had planned to anchor nearby and move into the cove in the morning. 

When Ruth Ann and I did arrive, there was the looming light of the city of Port St. Lucie, the moon, and more waterfront lights. We ghosted into the cove, past the Sandpiper Resort and its marina. I could see my friends’ boat, the Mollynogger, in the moonlight and anchored Ruth Ann just beyond them. 

Ironically, the Mollynogger crew were having a drink with friends back at the marina. As I had gone by someone exclaimed “a guy is coming up the creek in the dark!”  

“Yeah, that’s our friend Todd,” the crew said wryly. 

In the morning, I asked if they were comfortable with where I had anchored and offered to move otherwise. It was heartening when a cruiser who I respect affirmed my anchoring and simply replied “that’s exactly where I would have anchored.”  

The storm arrived by mid morning, right on schedule. We had winds gusting up toward forty knots but were well protected in the tiny cove. The anchorage back where I had been was completely exposed to the forecast winds, so it was nice to hear the wind howling and feel it a bit, but to be tucked into a completely safe spot. In fact, it was so peaceful up there that I ended up staying until Monday morning. Even then I only went back because of my Monday evening shift.  

Then a couple days ago, a milder storm front surprised me a bit even though I usually have an eye on the weather. Several times in the weeks I’ve been working at the laundromat, I’ve gone ashore a few hours early just to beat some weather that might have made the trip difficult. This week, however, I had some errands to run. Arriving ashore early was to accommodate running down to the south side of town on the bus and back before my shift. The midday weather was supposed to be gusty but it was forecast to calm down before I was off work. 

As I started closing up the store that evening, I was watching the weather, of course. The palm trees in the plaza parking lot were swaying but it didn’t look bad. I hadn’t really considered that rowing back out to Ruth Ann would be anything out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, when I locked up and left, I stepped out of the wind shadow of the plaza and could feel more wind than I had expected. All the way back to the park, I was walking straight into the wind coming right down Federal Highway. It was still fairly strong despite the morning’s forecast.

At the park, I unlocked the dinghy and set out. The creek was well protected from the wind with the nearby condos and the whole of downtown upwind, blocking for us. When I rowed out of the creek, however, I left that protection. All the moored boats had swung and I knew that the wind was going to be blowing strongly across my path during my river crossing. My usual route through the mooring field takes me past several now familiar boats. That time, however, I rowed much further north to compensate for the wind. The dinghy was aimed almost ninety degrees away from Ruth Ann, but the wind was pushing us sideways and we crab-walked through the mooring field. 

Out into the river itself, the windblown choppy waves increased in the open water. I kept rowing against the wind as Ruth Ann’s anchor light beckoned me on. At a certain point, I had made plenty of way into the wind and turned to aim the dinghy home. However, that had me rowing across the waves and as the dinghy wallowed from side to side, it was hard to keep the oars in the water. I kept splashing myself as the windward oar dipped into the water out of sync. Eventually, I turned further to put the stern into the wind and we surfed toward home. 

I had anticipated just enough weather that I hadn’t bothered to carry a jerry jug for water with me. It was just me and my canvas “boat bag” rocking and rolling in the dinghy. It was a pleasant relief when I finally brought the dinghy alongside and grabbed Ruth Ann’s gunwale. It had been a good struggle and though I probably only rowed a bit farther than my normal route, I had worked a hell of a lot harder. And the fun wasn’t quite over as then I had to get from the little boat into the big boat as they rocked up and down and against each other. When a wave crept along and got pinched between the two boats it splashed at me vigorously. I think the river was having fun. The “boat bag” went aboard between the lifelines and into the cockpit. Then I pulled the dinghy back toward Ruth Ann’s chainplates. I shipped the oars and, with one foot on the dinghy thwart and a good grip on the cap shroud, I stepped up onto the side deck. I was finally home. The winds gusted for a couple more hours, but by the time my brain had wound down and I was ready to sleep, the chop on the river was also down. I slept very well that night. 

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