The determination to reach a destination, combined with hazardous weather[.]https://www.aopa.org/training-and-safety/air-safety-institute/accident-analysis/featured-accidents/epilot-asf-accident-reports-get-there-itis, retrieved November 9, 2020.
Get-there-itis is a term well known in the aviation community. I’m unsure on whether it is a term sailors use. If not, it is a term the sailing (boating or yachting) community should include in its lexicon. Ed and I certainly succumbed, albeit somewhat unwittingly, to some get-there-itis on our week-long trek from Punta Gorda, FL, to Fort Lauderdale, FL. We did not insert ourselves into hazardous weather per se, but we certainly set off with some “sporty” weather and seas. It wasn’t until we reached Key West, FL, and back into cell range, that we found ourselves having to outrun a hurricane.
I’ll start from the beginning.
My last post was before we set off for Florida to take possession of our new (to us) boat and get her to her new slip near Fort Lauderdale. Serenity (formerly Woven) was in a slip at a marina near Punta Gorda, FL. After we had her surveyed late in September, Ed and I took a little field trip to see the marina where the boat was. We spoke to a gentleman who seemed to be in charge at the harbor master’s office, and quickly discovered the only way we were going to be able to keep that slip was to sign a one-year lease. The monthly cost was going to be fairly close to what our mortgage on the house is…pass. We also discovered the previous owners had a one-year lease that was to run until April of 2021. The marina was going to charge them for the full year of the lease, they could not assign or sublet the lease to us for its remainder, and the marina also had a wait list of close to 20 boats. After many, many phone calls to many, many marinas in Florida, we pretty much found the same thing everywhere. One-year lease, no assignments or sublets, and if you break it early, you’re on the hook for the full amount even if the marina leases your slip the very next day.
Holy racketeering batman. Can I sue for a RICO claim on this??
Ed finally found a month to month rental on a private dock near Fort Lauderdale, and for about half the cost. After a lot of conversation back and forth with brokers, we were given permission to keep the boat at its marina until the end of October, and then we had to vacate.
We arrived to the boat on the morning of the 27th, which gave us five days to make sure the boat was ready to sail. I made intermediate arrangements at fisherman’s village in Punta Gorda which gave us a few extra days to work with a skipper to familiarize Ed and me with sailing a Leopard 46. I had been diligently watching the weather for quite a while, and the weather had been consistently showing that we would have a decent weather window leaving on the morning of November 2. I knew we’d be dealing with some higher winds, but not so high as to be dangerous. I also had been watching hurricane Eta, and when we left, it was still projected to, and actually proceeding westbound over Central America and was projected to eventually rain itself out. Heading into November, it was statistically very likely this was the last hurricane for the season and it wasn’t anywhere near us. No other frontal waves were forming in the Atlantic either.
The time was up on dock rental…time to go.
First lesson learned(ish) on this trip: don’t go by boat unless you have time to float! I’ve borrowed this from an aviation phrase: don’t go by air unless you have time to spare.
I’ve taken on the tasks of weather forecasting and navigation since it is a skill that comes to me a little easier than it does Ed. It’s also something I enjoy and have a little more practice with by virtue of my many years of flying and work in aviation. While navigation and weather forecasting for aviation does translate fairly well to sailing, it does not translate directly. I certainly made quite a few rookie mistakes on this passage because I was looking through an aviation lens rather than a sailing lens. Temporally speaking, sailing and flying are worlds apart. 50 nautical miles in general aviation is an errand, on a sailboat, it is an all day trip. I certainly need to do a little more reading up on marine weather. Technology has made navigating very accessible to the lay person, so I had no problems with that aspect. Even if our chart plotter had gone caput, I am handy enough with dead reckoning, paper charts, and basic time/speed/distance calculations that we still would have found our way. We were also going to always be close enough to land in this case where navigation by landmarks would have worked just fine.
Where I really misjudged things was how debilitating seasickness can be. I get motion sick fairly easily, but in the flying context, I’ve learned to manage it very well. Being on a boat in the open water is whole different ball of wax that I underestimated. I knew I’d have to deal with seasickness, I did not know it would totally shut me down. I was able to lend my hands on the first day for short tasks where I was needed, but no more. Ed was left with helm duty for almost the entire day on our first leg. The first day also ended up being longer than we anticipated for a few reasons, and we did not reach our first anchorage until about 10 pm. We also ultimately anchored quite a ways south of where I had planned, Marco Island, and dropped anchor at Pavillion Key.
Another lesson I learned is pick out a couple of anchorages for each stop in case things come up that slow you down. After the first night, I got much better with having a few anchorage spots scoped out on the chart that accounted for a variety of speeds and time lines.
We originally had planned to sail to Key West on the second day, but after the first day, Ed and I needed to recover a bit. We slept in and got a midmorning start, and decided to break up the Key West leg into two days. We motored along the shore in Everglades National Park since we were both too wiped to deal with the sails. We arrived at Sandy Key, which is just south of mainland Florida, late afternoon and dropped the anchor. Sandy Key is quite remote but an idyllic looking island. We also had dolphins hunting around our boat which was fun to watch. I also finally got some reprieve from sea sickness and made us a nice pasta salad dinner.
Day three saw us pulling up anchor at about 4am to ensure we made Key West with plenty of daylight to spare. We mostly had the wind behind us so we motor-sailed with the genoa (we unfortunately do not have a spinnaker yet). We made good time, especially becuase of surfing the following seas, and anchored next to Wisteria Island at Key West. Ed and I decided it would be nice to stay at Key West for a day or two since we still had a week and a half before we had to catch our flight back to Portland. We had also gotten quite worn out from dealing with consistent 25kt+ wind, and we figured it would be nice to wait for calmer wind since we would have to mostly motor into the wind along the Keys. This was also the first cell signal we had since leaving on Monday, so my first task was to get an updated weather forecast. It was at this time I realized hurricane Eta would likely be arriving to our location within five days. Oh sh–.
I began feverishly plotting out the rest of our trip. We had four days to get the boat to Fort Lauderdale before it really started to hit the fan. I figured we *might* be able to make it in two days, but I knew that would be pushing it. I plotted a route/anchorage for two days, and I also plotted one for three days which I suspected would be the likelier scenario…and it was the scenario that ultimately played out.
On day four we motored to Indian Key because we had wind almost directly on the nose. On day five we motored until Key Largo, and then motor-sailed with the genoa until arriving at Key Biscayne. If we had just had a couple more hours of daylight, and didn’t need to refuel, we could have made it to the dock that day. There was no way it would have been safe for us to attempt to dock in the dark. We enjoyed an afternoon at Key Biscayne and also had our first little break from gusty wind. I again updated our weather status and discovered our last leg, though relatively short at about 35nm, was going to suck.
Our last leg was going to put us into close proximity to the gulf stream and we were going to be dealing with a 25kt+ wind out of the ENE. Having any kind of northerly component of wind on the gulf stream equals nasty sea state because the wind is basically blowing opposite direction from the ocean current. The wave forecast also showed 1.5m swells growing to 2.2m swells by noon with a wave period of seven seconds. We were also going to be mostly against the waves, but at least quartering rather than directly. Day six ended up being a wet and bouncy ride. Our sailboat can handle quite a lot of wave because she has a wide beam (width), but short period, 8-10 foot seas are scary as crap…especially for a new sailor. We also motored this leg because getting out on deck to handle sails was not a safe option for us. At one point, I even got a radio call from the Coast Guard because they thought we might be having some difficulty when we had to do some…*ahem*…creative maneuvering to cross behind a container ship exiting the Port of Miami. They no doubt thought we had lost our steering for a moment.
We finally pulled into the channel that leads to our dock around 11am on November 7, and had it docked (that was another adventure) by noon. I have NEVER been so relieved to arrive at my destination than I was that day. We had ourselves one hell of a shake down cruise! Hurricane Eta arrived the next day, but the boat did just fine. Luckily, we were quite a bit north of the eye. At least we got the boat washed by the torrential rain.
I appreciate the education on what the boat is capable of handling, and even what we are capable of handling, but I think this is a lesson we only need to have once. This is the first and last time we will have ourselves in a situation where we are having to adhere to a tight timeline. It almost seems inevitable that bad weather accompanies a sailor when she must get the boat somewhere by a certain date. Get-there-itis…so tempting, never fun. We were never in danger or in truly hazardous weather, but our mission does not necessitate our making this the bar for making go/no-go decisions. Enjoyment and comfort will now be given much more consideration. This is a journey for us, not a race.