Sailing - Chapter 3 - Launch and Catfish Key

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

Good morning.  

Today is "Sail" day. We are up early - around 6 am. The sailboat is already attached to the Jeep, but there is a lot of work to prepare, aka "step the mast" (I'm already learning new terms) before the boat goes in the water. On my fishing boat, I simply turn two keys to make my engines start. Holy moley, there are lots of cables and clips to connect on a sailboat:

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

Nick has obviously done this before. He knows what to do, I just take directions.  
Don is also helping.

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

Right before we get on the sailboat, the sun is starting to rise. Hey, we at least remember to tie a bow line to the boat so it doesn't drift off while we were still on the dock. 
I have actually made that mistake before. 

We know EXACTLY what we're doing!?

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

Time to launch. Nick's family on the dock takes obligatory pictures.  
Nick's son smiles and states, "You guys are gonna die."

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

And we are off!  See you in a week - or so.  

Mistake #1. 

Funny thing is, we are only about 50 ft from the dock in this picture. I look down. We are in less than two feet of water. Nick's boat drafts 1.5 ft, so we are in immediate danger of going aground 45 seconds into our "sail". There is no channel here. I yell, "Go left". We forgot to check the tides. It is, apparently, low-tide. After a few minutes, it gets a little deeper - but not much. 2-3 ft now a 1000 yards from the boat ramp. Man, it is shallow around here.  

Mistake #2.  

Ice! We forgot to get ice! No re-supplies for 3-4 days, and no cold beer? Um, that sucks.

I'm certain we won't make any further mistakes!  What could go wrong from here?

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

We're about two hours into our journey. We're sailing! We're smiling because I told Nick that if my dining-room calculations were correct, we should be seeing a Coast Guard navigational buoy about 2 hours in. 2 hours in -  we sail right past! Okay, cool, my skills don't completely suck. As navigator, I'm feeling pretty confident - at this moment. In the distance, if you look closely in the picture above, you can see that red buoy over my left shoulder on the horizon.

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

Yeah, sailing doesn't suck.  
Although I have noticed that even after two-hours I can still kinda see the dock over my right shoulder.  Hmm.  
I miss my 500 HP engines.

This is my hand-held Garmin GPS Map 64. I sent Nick a mount for it. So, it is mounted above our float plan - which is laminated to protect it from the weather. Besides the compass, and my navigation chart, this little GPS device is our primary form of navigation for our journey. I will write more on this device later. In fact, I fully intend to send a letter, or at least a link to this Post, to the Garmin corporation. (More on that later)

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

Our destination for our 1st day sail is a small island called "Sandy Key" aka "Catfish Key". If my calculations are correct, it should be about a 6-hour sail from Bahia Honda. Easy, peezy for our 1st day. I figure if we miss the island, we will eventually hit the coast of Florida.  Florida is BIG!  The red line below is our course.  The scary part of this first leg is that we can't stay near land - all open water:
Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

We have sailed about 4 hours. To our right, and slightly behind us, a storm is brewing and growing.  Admittedly, it is growing slowly but it is definitely getting more formidable and ugly-looking. There is no doubt that it continues to look more ominous. We have a following sea because the wind from this storm is pushing us along at a nice pace. Winds aren't too bad, maybe 15 mph. Actually, perfect for sailing. We have both the main sail and something called a "Genoa" sail up.  (The big "poofy" sail). Time goes by. Winds increase. The sailboat is really moving now. We are about 3/4 of the way to Sandy Key (I think).  I take a picture of the looming storm behind us:

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

Yes, it really did look EXACTLY like that - I have not modified this picture.  
I didn't notice the contrast of the sky and sea at the time.

The storm is almost upon us. Much to my dismay, my days of wondering what a severe thunderstorm would be like on a sailboat are abruptly coming to an end. That time has arrived. Although we are running from it, there is no doubt now that it will catch us.

Obviously, I can't exit the sailboat and take a picture of ourselves, but if I could, it would have looked something similar to this:
Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

If that looks somewhat terrifying to you, yeah - I get it.  Me too.

Nick and I put on our PFDs and I pull out the ePIRB and clip it to my body. I inform him that I am going inside the cabin to let the Coast Guard know our exact location. It isn't raining yet. I call the Coast Guard on the VHF and give them our exact lat/long position using the Garmin GPS, informing them that we are a sailing vessel; we are in a "pan pan" situation; and that we are about to be overtaken by a severe thunderstorm. Just a precautionary call for safety.

While I am on the VHF with the Coast Guard, I hear Nick yell very loudly - "Oh Shit". At exactly that moment, my entire body flies from the starboard side of the cabin over to the port side and I hit my head. The VHF mic is still in my hand. I'm not sure if I tell the Coast Guard we have capsized or not, but I know that we have. We are broadside to the wind and waves. Amazingly, the little boat rights itself back to center. The boat may be old, but apparently, it is pretty sea-worthy. Immediately, I hear Nick yell again, "Marc, I need you out here - NOW!".

The severe winds directly in front of the storm caught us off-guard while I was on the VHF radio.

I throw the mic down, exit the cabin and grab the tiller. We are broadside to the storm - waves crashing over the boat - not good.  Nick, bless his heart, is doing his best to hang on to the mast in 30 mph gusts while simultaneously trying to bring the Genoa and the Main sail down. How he has managed to hang on up there, I have no idea, but somehow, in severe wind gusts, he manages to do this without falling overboard while I keep the sailboat turned into the storm with the tiller.  His decision to bring down aka "reef" the sails in this crisis has categorically saved the boat from being capsized - for now.  I admit, I am impressed with his quick-thinking, courage and knowledge. As we learned a few days later while watching the weather channel talking about the severe storms in the keys, the major winds in these storms precedes the actual storm - they push out quickly at the water surface and, according to the weatherman, they almost always catch sailboats off-guard. Okay, I can now attest to that accurate synopsis first-hand.

The waves are 6-7 ft and we are literally being pummeled by wind and rain. Thunder reverberates around us. Nick now has just a sliver of the main sail up. Genoa sail is completely down. Good move, Captain. Trust me when I tell you that every ounce of my body is saying "Run, Forrest, run way from the storm", but keeping the bow in the wind (directly into the storm), we both know, is the right decision. So, we reluctantly proceed into the heart of this severe thunderstorm with our tiny, sea-worthy sailboat. No other choice, time to face weather hell.

10 minutes go by. I couldn't tell you if they went by quickly or slowly. This particular event is on the surreal side of my life. We are in the middle of nowhere and being pummeled with rain, lightning and wind. Can't see shit. We literally can't see 10 feet in front of the bow because of the rain. We're soaked. We aren't talking to each other, just sailing and concentrating. My body may be soaked, but my mouth is cotton-dry. Nick has taken back over the tiller. I hold on to the ePIRB and the ditch bag. I look up at the tall, metal mast as I feel lightning strike nearby. I wonder what would happen......

After 7-8 more minutes (an estimate), the rain starts to subside, the thunder lessens, the wind and waves die down.  

Nick and I silently look at each other and although we don't say it (yet), I know what we are both thinking, "We are going to survive this storm". We sail a few more minutes, the wind and rain subside even more, the waves return to normal. I tell Nick, "I'm gonna turn us back on course". He agrees. So with just a little sail, I turn the boat about and we continue with our correct heading Northeast towards Sandy Key. An island we haven't yet seen, but hope is there.

We are no longer "sailing storm virgins", states Nick, with a smile.

I had no idea that Nick took this selfie picture, but it is a great one:

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

That was rather intense, my friend.  
We're idiots.

The storm continues away from us. Now it is someone else's problem. In fact, we hear on the VHF that the storm has capsized a sailboat near 7-mile bridge - which is where we were just a few hours ago. We listen to the Coast Guard talking to them on the radio. They are all in the water and scared. Fortunately, it doesn't sound like they are too far from land (unlike us). I pray that they are all okay.  Scary storm. I no longer have to wonder, as I have the last few days, what it would be like to ride one out on a small sailboat. I'll mark that one off my checklist. Honestly, I don't ever want to do it again. I may be smiling in this picture that Nick took of me, but I can assure you, that storm scared the crap out of me.
Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

A muted sun comes out. We take off our PFDs. Our mood, like the sky, has lightened. I look over at the Garmin. Still working perfectly! Thank you Garmin corporation for your engineering and quality! That handheld took a severe beating in that storm. The darn thing kept working perfectly through all that drenching. What a great device - especially in foul weather! You Garmin people ever need a first-hand testimonial from someone who is extremely grateful?  Feel free to give me a call. Your product rocks!:

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

All three of you still reading?  I'm not boring you?  Okay, great.... I'll keep writing then.

An hour later, we see the tiny island.  Right where it should be! Awesome. First sight of land in 7 hours. No other boats around. We are approaching our first island in the frickin Everglades!

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast
Land ahoy!

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

Based upon the look on his face, perhaps Nick was a little doubtful that there really was an island out here in the middle of nowhere.
I was a little doubtful myself.

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast
We are in the red-circle.  
Don't you wish you were here with us??

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

A little closer now.
Time to change into some dry clothes and drink a beer!  
Beer is still cold, too. Some ice left.
I get back on the radio and cancel the "pan pan" with the Coast Guard.  
I inform them that we are safe and I thank them profusely for what they do.
I don't say anything about the beer.  :-)

We see posted signs in front of the island, so we sail up to them. "Bird Sanctuary - Do Not Enter".  Well, damn. I didn't see that as part of my research. I was looking forward to walking on land. We anchor the boat about a quarter-mile from the island, respectfully just outside the signs, in 4 ft waters.

Since I am not the Captain on this trip, part of my duties are "Cook". Nick informs me that he is going to walk over to the island, not necessarily go on it (respect the environment), but take some pictures off the beach. Okay, that sounds cool - I'll go. We jump in. We both immediately sink to our hips in "muck" that is under the water.  Ugh. That is just plain nasty. 

Nick says, "I'm gonna swim over."
My reply, "I'm gonna drink some wine, fish a little, and get started on some dinner".

I think we are both okay with our respective decisions since neither of us wanted to leave the sailboat unattended - and we are hungry. Nick swims off while I get steaks started on the handy-dandy propane grill Gene & Ryan bought for my offshore boat a few years ago (Thanks Gene & Ryan).

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

In this picture below, we are anchored. I am still cooking and fishing. Sandy Key is actually two islands - a big one and a small one.  This picture is the small one. Both, apparently, are bird sanctuaries. Beautiful place, clear water and at the moment - no mosquitoes. Seas are calm.

Life is good.
Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

I'm keeping an eye on him. From a far distance near the island, I hear Nick yell, "Hey, there is a channel here!" And so there is. Just a hundred yards from the island, there is a clear, fast moving channel. The tide continues to go out, so the channel has become more apparent. Nick enjoys his swim across the little channel and eventually makes his way back to the boat.

Good timing, my friend. I have dinner ready:

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

NY Strip steaks, fresh cherries, toasted croissants - and red wine.
Not too bad, if I do say so myself!  
NY steaks are delicious.

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

We finish our dinner; the sun is setting. I'm fishing. I catch a ladyfish. Nick is hanging out. We are in the middle of the Everglades, safely anchored with full stomachs! Nick turns and I snap a quick picture of him. Admittedly, we are feeling pretty good about ourselves and our current situation.

We obviously KNOW what we are doing; cause we made it here.

Actual Conversation:

I happen to look past Nick and say, "Hey, look at all those fish feeding in the channel near the island!"
Nick looks over.  
Sure enough, we see some huge fins sticking out of the water chasing smaller fish who are thrashing about.
Are those dolphin fins?
"Um, No. Those are big sharks!"
"Didn't you just swim through that same channel 45 minutes ago, Nick?"
"Um, yeah."
"You should drink another beer dude and enjoy having appendages."
And so he does.

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

This is the picture off the back of the sailboat while we are anchored next to the island. It is absolutely breathtaking. Once again, Nick and I remind ourselves, via a toast, that we are in the middle of the Everglades. God (in my opinion) has allowed us to arrive safely. Yes, we may be idiots, but we are adventurous idiots, and right now, we both feel blessed down to our core to be able to experience this adventure together as life-long, best friends. Instinctively, we know that this moment, next to this tiny island, on this little boat, is a rare opportunity. A unique experience somewhat unparalleled in anyone's lifetime.

The weather is cool and breezy, no mosquitoes.  Peaceful.  Surreal.

We call it a night.......

I am awoken at midnight by wind - lots of wind!  The tide has gone out and the sailboat is sitting in muck, but fortunately, we are not keeled-over. We are kind of "suctioned in" to muck, but level. I glance outside. There is no water around us for at least a mile. The tides are bizarre down here. There is a fierce storm blowing outside our cabin. I'm no expert on measuring wind speed inside of a small sailboat cabin - in the middle of the Everglades - but it sure sounds like a tropical storm. I quickly check radar on my phone: (Amazingly, I have Internet)

There is a huge weather mass Southeast of us. That, apparently, is where the "heart" of the storm is.  I really hope that it doesn't come our way:
Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

I check again in thirty minutes.  It comes:
Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

In the middle of all that red, yellow and green is a small sailboat in the middle of the Everglades, next to a tiny uninhabited island, all alone, getting pummeled. Nothing I can do about it; the boat isn't leaking (not even a little bit); we obviously aren't moving or sinking any further until the tide comes back in. I drift back to a peaceful slumber as the wind howls around us. Welcome to the Everglades!  

A bottle of red wine, accompanied with exhaustion, didn't hurt my sleep efforts.

Good night everyone from a tiny island in the Everglades. We're still alive!

See you tomorrow for: Sailing - Chapter 4 - Highland Point Beach

Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast


  1. Just as i remember it! You have a wonderful way with words my friend!