The event begins on the first Saturday in March from the beach at Fort DeSoto in St. Petersburg. This year, because of the small craft advisory in place for breeze, the race started under a weather hold and Plan B –– which meant that instead of having the 100+ paddle-craft, catamarans, sailing vessels, SUPs, and windsurfers scamper into the sea at sunrise to the majestic caterwauling of bagpipes, not much happened for a couple of hours.
The sun also rose. As it does. People wandered around and chattered.
Some Watertribefolk packed vessels onto cars and drove off to launch anywhere south of the Tampa Bay shipping channel. They can do that. It's a quirky event, with a certain fluidity to the rules of play.
But by 10:15 or so, after that final freighter cleared the racecourse, boats belly-flopped from the high-tide line into the salt water.
Cheering was heard. Good-bye kisses were thrown about with abandon.
A few moments later, the remaining spectators shrugged to one another and drove their separate ways elsewhere.
The incessant checking of the tracker began, somewhat less frantically for me this year as our dear friend Charli Clifton had taken on the on-shore chase-car driver duties. He had the trailer in tow and would be picking up the boat and team at the end of their trip –– we hoped in Key Largo.
Spawn had many miles to go before sleep, many miles, but also promises to keep. JT(Jahn Tihansky, aka Moresailhesaid) and my favorite skipper Jeff "TwoBeers" Linton are busy guys. JT had airline reservations while Jeff's next sailing engagement started the following Wednesday (ooh! Merlin to Eleuthra!).
They hoped that the northerly winds would hold and catapult them all the way down. But if wishes were horses, and horses could fly? You'd have to really watch your step.
As they tracked down the coast, conditions continued freshy-freshy in the low-20's. Spawn beelined across Tampa Bay with a reefed main and jib, and then threaded the needle of Passage Key and Anna Maria, hugging the shore. Some swim-bouys may have been seen on the seaward side of Spawn. Oopsie!
On the long swoop south east along the coast, the boys crossed tacks with stable-mates DC and SailorEd. Each team tried to gauge whether the breeze was better by shore or farther out. The jury never really settled on a side.
Because the conditions were so up and down, with the wind dying and then puffing a LOT, the Spawnsters set up their "triple rig."
In the three or so minutes when the wind was lighter, JT and Jeff deployed the screetcher (a big, roller-furling jib with a free luff, ideal for either light air upwind, or off-wind work), and then as a black-beauty puff came barreling down on them, they'd quickly roll up the screecher and sail on reefed main and jib alone. When the puff passed, out came the screecher again...all the way to Gasparilla Pass (almost to Boca Grande).
Like downshifting for hills.
With the sun setting, the breeze evened out, and the team continued with the more conservative jib and (still) reefed main. They cleared Channel marker #4 –– Boca Grande –– and hardened up for the left-hand turn to clear the tip of Sanibel.
Then came the fast but very wet portion of their ride. So wet that the boys could only offer a weary laugh at the ridiculousness of the wetness.
Drenching conditions: airborne water stinging right into your face. Ploughing into waves, spray fire-hosing completely through Mr. Linton's dry suit. Soi-disant dry-suit! That particular garment did not make the return trip in the van.
Under a shining full moon, Spawn crashed and splashed to Cape Romano –– Caxambas Pass –– around 11 at night, well ahead of their previous best time. Then to Indian Key on a jib-reach, doing 10-12 knots.
Going up Indian Channel to Chokoloskee, a foul current and the lee of the mangroves led to the need for oars. The team rowed and sailed ("power-sailed") for about an hour... They met with a very considerate crab boat that neither chased them out of the channel nor waked them. Hurrah for humanity!
Into Chockloskee at low tide meant an Abbot and Costello routine involving JT, knee-deep mud, a lost (and found!) shoe, and an attempt to check in without having a check-in box in play. A 100-foot trek through stinking saltwater mud for essentially naught.
The text he sent is telling: "Just left Chok. No lockbox ." So many words go in that space between the x and the period!
While JT was so employed, Jeff slowly and cautiously walked in the mud to turn Spawn around ("to get the weather gauge") for departure.
Once they got JT back aboard and mostly de-mudded, our doughty crew shook out the reef, and proceeded with a favorable current and a tailwind. As a cheerful change of habit, no oyster bars jumped out and bit them.
At around 5, predawn, the leg to Cape Sable turned kindly. The boys were able to dry off and snatch a bit of shut eye.
They call it Cape Sable, but it's made up of three small bumps along the coast, each unnamed except as they relate to a person's progress (first, second, third...). At the first cape, the wind was out of the northeast at around 8 knots. At the second, Northeast at 12. By the third, KATIE BAR THE DOOR! The wind was blowing around 25 knots right out of the east.
We often remark on the speed at which the weather changes. For Spawn, in the course of 20 minutes, the conditions went from idle pleasure cruise to very heavy sailing indeed. Knowing that they had the tide at least with them into Flamingo, the Spawnsters beached the boat before rounding the third cape.
They took down the jib and put up the smaller storm jib. They put the reef back in to the main. They reapplied unguent to their sit-upons and girded up their loins.
It took something like 5 hours to travel that final 10 miles to Checkpoint 3. The wind was howling from exactly the direction they wanted to travel. The tide running against that wind made for yet another agitate cycle in their washing machine.
They ultimately decided to overstand the mark, sailing beyond Flamingo and then trying to skate downwind into the harbor rather than short-tacking up the coast. Once they got to windward of Flamingo, they had a sort of slalom downwind course between mangrove islands.
Shooting along, hoping to reach a minuscule powerboat channel, they sailed right up to some standing seabirds working along the backside of some mangroves. Standing seabirds –– as any boater will tell you –– is a sure sign of impending land.
As soon as Spawn reached the lee of the trees, the boat came off its plane and snuggled into the mud. Stinky saltwater mud oozed out of the centerboard trunk. The birds waded on, nonplussed.
Unfurling the storm jib, the boys caught a puff and escaped certain quick-sandy doom. "Looks like your bed got ruined," TwoBeers remarked, as the mud found its level all over the cockpit of the boat. Again.
Reaching Flamingo, finally, at around 4:30 in the afternoon Sunday, the team tied up next to the Tenzan and MidNightCrew, a Hobie 16 team.The wind continued to howl out of the east.
After careful calculation, the soonest our team figured they could reach Key Largo would be Tuesday night. With a 6 am start scheduled for Wednesday morning in Fort Lauderdale, TwoBeers pulled the plug. Reportedly, Moresailesaid was both incredulous and enthusiastic about the decision.
They called their ground crew –– Yay Charli! –– who had just reached Key Largo and asked him to come fetch them.
By eleven, the team was tucked, likely snoring, into their hotel room back in Key Largo, ready for their next adventure.
Of course, in hindsight, it was a wise –– if bitter –– decision to stop early. More than half of the fleet bailed out early. In discussions afterwards, the words "epic" "gnarly" and "nightmarish" were tossed about freely. There were triumphs and actual tragedies.
But on our boat neither triumph nor tragedy, we are grateful to report. Another 24 hours of pounding upwind? The mighty Spawn never made a peep, never leaked, never balked, but the main bulkhead definitely felt the conditions.
And of course, next year, the Spawnsters will be clearing their schedule to make time for a day's delay should conditions require.
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