Saturday, March 7, 2009

Punta Gorda to Sarasota

A good weather window, crew, and a day off from work. Everything was pointing towards a good opportunity to get my boat from Punta Gorda to its new berth in Sarasota.

I was pretty certain as early as Tuesday that I would be making the trip. The forecasts were all pretty good and, almost as importantly, I'd already paid for the slip. My boss gave me the okay to take Friday off work so I could have a 3 day chance to get the boat up there. Its roughly a 60 mile trip by water and, while the forecasts were good, all that could change.

Also, I had planned on making the trip single-handed. Jimi's work has been picking up to the point were he has to work on the weekends now. While he wasn't sure what the upcoming weekend would bring, I had a feeling that he wouldn't be available and planned accordingly.

However, I got news that a poker-buddy of mine was interested in going. While I knew that I could make the trip by myself, its much nicer to have crew. My boat doesn't have any self-steering yet and a solo trip would mean I'd have to man the wheel the entire trip. So when Peter volunteered I was relieved.

Of all the trips I've made this one had the most planning go into it. I printed out weather forecasts (including some excellent information like wave height and frequency, wind directions and strength predictions, and all in 3-hour intervals), tide predictions all along the route, and reviewed the charts for hours. I bought food and water for 3 days. Over the last week I had filled all my fuel cans
with diesal and made sure the boat's tank was full. I was prepared.

The biggest unknown in the trip was if I could do it in one day. Mary had told me she'd made the same trip before and she had stopped overnight in the Venice inlet (where there is a free anchorage) which is about 4/5 of the way to Sarasota. Based on the tides (which were sort of against me for the first 5 hours of the trip) I suspected that I'd have to anchor the night in Venice.

Peter and I arrived at the boat at 7:10am on Friday morning. It only took about 10 minutes to get the boat ready to cast off. Mostly this was just checking the fuel and getting all lines in. I started the engine and gave the boat some throttle to clear the dock and head out the channel... only the boat didn't move.

Low tide was at 6:45am. High tide wouldn't occur until 10:45pm! My keel was firmly in the mud. This, of course, hearkens back to my single-handed sail 6 weeks ago where I discovered that the canals in Punta Gorda are much lower than they are supposed to be. I knew the tide would be very low, but I hadn't realized that my boat was actually sitting in mud when the tide was at its lowest.

Well, I had been aground before as anyone who reads my blogs knows, so I knew how to get out of this. Peter and I leaned as far as possible to one side of the boat to lift the keel out of the water and I tried shoving off the dock. No go. Attempt two was grabbing a pile with a boat hook and attempting to pull while Peter gunned the engine. No go. Attempt three was attaching a line to a piling and
pulling while doing the engine thing again. Nope.

Finally, Peter suggested lowering the line on the piling, and I attached the other end to a winch. This method showed some promise and ultimately worked when we throttled up the engine. This had an unfortunate side effect of crushing one of my lifeline stantions when the boat lurched free and I was unable to ease the line on the winch in time... but I already needed to replace another stantion that was
bent in exactly the same way by some previous owner.

At last, we were free and on our way. It was now 8:00am... a loss of 40 minutes.

The 40 minutes disturbed me more than it should have. Despite having planned on anchoring in Venice (I had printed special instructions on exactly how to get there and made myself familiar with the charts of the area) I was really hoping to make it all the way to Sarasota in one day. Most sailors will tell you that you shouldn't be worried about time while sailing, its the journey that matters. Its obvious I haven't discarded all my old habits and worries yet.

However, the trip down Charlotte Harbor went well. I raised the sails as soon as we got in the main channel but I kept the engine running. This motor sailing technique was really moving us along quickly... we were making over 6.5 miles an hour according to the GPS. We reached Boca Grande almost right on time with my original estimate... we were approaching it right at noon.

Boca Grande is the pass from Charlotte Harbor into the Gulf of Mexico. Since the tide was coming in we had to fight a strong current as we entered the outlet. Our speed as we approached was down to 5 mph or so.

As we got closer and closer I kept looking at the charts. Its a really peculiar bit of water, where the channel has areas that are more than 50' deep, surrounded by others areas that are only 2' deep. This makes for excellent tarpin fishing (or so I'm told). Because of the shallow areas you have to carefully follow the buoys which lead southwest to the gulf... the opposite direction I wanted to go. I noticed a very narrow path which was literally 30 yards from shore that, if done properly, would let me bypass the buoys and head straight north along the shore, then eventually out to the deeper gulf waters. This could save 45 minutes to an hour!

As I was thinking this and looking towards the area I would need to sail, I noticed a mast moving behind the beach. Another sailboat was taking the reverse of the course I was considering!

Let me tell you, I was very tempted to try it. But better sense finally prevailed and we headed to the first of the buoys. I don't know if I could have done it or not. If I had noticed this small path earlier I might have asked around on the net to see what others have experienced there. But the risk didn't seem worth the gain now... after all, we had somehow made my original planned time to Boca Grande despite the late start. Perhaps we could make up more time on the journey north.

we kept motor-sailing even though I despised the engine noise. We were really make good time as we went north, sometimes reaching 7.8 mph. The were close hauled for several hours. The breeze felt good, the sun was shining, and the gulf waters were beautiful.

At some point Peter was fiddling with the GPS and finally discovered how to enter way points. I'd never bothered... I really hated the clunky 1980s feel of this particular model and basically just used the thing as a speedometer and for coordinates. Peter was not deterred by the fact that we couldn't find the manual and kept poking it until it yielded results to his satisfaction. Eventually he was able to state we had 15 miles until we reached the Venice inlet. Then 10. 5. And then we were there.

It was about 4:00pm as we reached the way point where we could turn into the inlet and anchor for the evening. We could make phone calls, eat dinner, perhaps play a game of chess.

Or... we could keep on trucking up the coast and see if we couldn't hit way point number 2... the Big Pass inlet at Sarasota... before the very real deadline of 6:30pm.

I've had several knowledgeable people tell me that Big Pass is a very treacherous inlet. The dock master at my new marina warned to absolutely not try to enter that pass at dark, and a couple of co-workers who fish in the area said the same thing. I knew that the sun would be setting a roughly 6:30, and once it set we would have only another 10-15 minutes of light left. That meant we had to hit the first buoy before 6:30pm if we wanted to enter the area safely.

I decided to go for it. We'd made good time so far, meeting all my mental way points almost exactly at the time I was hoping. I was confident we could hit the mark here, too.

So onward we went.

The gulf breeze really kicked up a notch while we headed northward on this leg. I was a bit put off by that since the forecast had been for 2 mph winds at this time of day. I was more put off by the fact that we were now heading right into it. I had to take the sails down because they were starting to luff quite a bit and were now probably hindering us rather than giving us a boost.

Because the wind had picked up so much that meant the previously glassy gulf waters had now started to get a bit more frisky. The waves weren't much larger than the predicted 1 foot or so, but their frequency had definitely increased and we were starting to catch a lot of spray.

As the sky turned orange and the sun was hovering over the western gulf we hit the first marker for the Big Pass. The sun set a couple minutes after we passed it and it as 6:30pm on the nose.

Unfortunately, it seemed a lot darker than I expected. It was pretty hard to make out the next buoys in the fading light. Peter was forward spotting the markers and, based on advice from the dock master, I stayed to the far right of the channel. In fact, I was actually out of the channel by a few feet. I was very nervous as we hit depths of 6 feet and less.

However, with Peter pointing out the channel markers and a few other boats in channel at the same time, we navigated the hazardous part without incident and entered the main part of the pass with depths as much as 25' and more. That was nerve wracking, but probably not as stressful as the ICW trip Jimi and I had made at night, in the rain.

There were actually a few other special moments as we approached the marina. We were following a cruise boat called "Marina Jack II" which, of course, I had seen at the marina several times. I naturally assumed it was going home and we could just follow it in. Turns out they had more cruising to do and motored right on past the channel to the marina. Luckily we had another boat we could follow in as we still were having a hard time making out the channel markers into the marina.

We docked safely in my new slip and Jimi was there to help tie us up and give us a ride home. We celebrated the successful adventure by having a steak and a drink on the way back to Port Charlotte.