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Sailing Short Stories

Fort Pierce to Key West

Richard Summers was living on his Com-Pac 27 in Fort Pierce, FL. He wanted to cruise to Key West and he asked me if I wanted to go. I sounded like a good place to be in January where it was supposed to be warm. He picked me up at Com-Pac in Clearwater in his rental car and we headed for Fort Pierce. His marina in Fort Pierce was next to the inlet and it had all the necessary facilities for good living. A small restaurant at the marina served breakfast and lunch and the showers, phone and cable service was first class. Fort Pierce is mostly a retirement community with lots of seniors enjoying the warm Florida weather. Richard liked Fort Pierce.

I modified Richardís 27 for traveling the ICW and for living on board. We installed an 18 hp 3-cylinder diesel that sounded like a V8. He wanted to make sure he could keep up with the other boats on the ICW. Itís important to make bridge openings on time or you may not make it to your destination before dark. I had fun guessing at the right propeller for the installation. I got it right on my second guess. Richard also had air conditioning/heat, refrigeration, a large chart table and radar on his 27. He liked charts and most charts are big and that big chart table came in handy. There is a large community of sailors that live on their boats in Florida. They come from all over and they all have something in common. They liked the weather and they liked boating. Itís a pretty good combination.

I was going to be back in the ďVĒ berth like the trip to Cape May in the 23. This ďVĒ berth in the 27 had a lot more room. Richard had left a port open during a rainstorm and the rain had trashed his HF radio. I didnít think about that when I installed the radio over the hanging locker in the ďVĒ berth. Other than no HF radio, we were operational for the trip south. We had dinner that night at a restaurant located on the south bank of the inlet channel going to the ocean. You could look one way and see the ocean sea buoy and look the other way and see the marina where Richard kept his boat. It was a short inlet channel. We would go out the channel were we had dinner, turn right and we would be in the Gulf Stream that was flowing in the wrong direction for us. The next day, we did all that on a great sunny morning. We motored until we were off shore enough to start sailing. The wind was light, but it was in the right direction to sail south. Richard hadnít used his furling gear in some time and it didnít work. It had a problem at the furling drum with a fouled furling line. Fixing something at sea can be a problem because the distance between the waves gives the repair person lots of up and down. It has been known to cause seasickness. That didnít happen to me this time, but I though about the possibility. We pulled the headsail out and kept the motor running. Our speed was about 6 knots heading towards our destination at Lake Worth. Lake Worth is about 40 miles south of Fort Pierce and shouldnít have been a problem at 6 knots. We were about 1 mile off shore and we kept that distance as we sailed south with other boats going the same way. The other boats were large sports fishing boats and they were moving a lot faster than we were. Later that afternoon, we noticed a sailboat going south and he was very close to shore. Maybe only 100 yards off the beach. He was going faster than we were because we could measure his speed against the shore. He was leaving us behind. We were too far out in the Gulf Stream to take advantage of the back eddies close to shore. The big powerboats didnít care because they had all that boat speed to get home quickly. This was wintertime and the days were short. We started worrying about whether we were going to get to Lake Worth before dark. We could see the inlet sea buoy at some distance and all those fishing boats that passed us made the turn into the inlet. It looked like we had another hour or so to go before we would get to the sea buoy. Lucky for us that we did make the sea buoy and the channel between the sea buoy and shore before dark. The rest of the channel from the shore to ICW was in darkness. The channel was wide and well marked and Richard was picking out the marks while I steered. I donít like guessing at marks and I donít like navigating channels at night. After reaching the ICW, we had to find a marina for the night. We didnít know any marina names and talking to someone at marina on VHF didnít seem likely. We saw one marina that had an empty slip, so we decided to park the boat and find someone to ask about a slip face to face. We did all that and found a dock master in his office. He said the slip that we were in would be fine for the night. I tied up the boat while Richard paid for the slip and checked on hot food. The dock master said there was a restaurant about a mile down the road under a bridge. We walked the mile and the food was excellent. The restaurant owner noticed that we didnít drive up in a car. He said the area between the restaurant and the marina is known as a high crime area. When we were walking to the restaurant, we noticed the area was a little on the dark and creepy side. Going back to the boat, we move quickly and kept our eyes open for trouble. We slept well that night and departed Lake Worth the following morning.

The next leg of our journey would be an ICW trip with lots of bridges. You can measure the distance between bridges from a chart, calculate your boat speed and come up with a good guess on when you will arrive at a bridge. A slow sailboat will never hit them all on time, but we try to avoid missing one where we have to wait a long time for the next opening. Our next stop would be Fort Lauderdale. We passed a nuclear submarine docked at a pier above Fort Lauderdale and also saw several large yachts that carried helicopters. The weather has changed and it was getting cold on the water. The Fort Lauderdale Yacht Club had transit slips available and we were ready for a hot shower. The Yacht Club didnít have a dock master manning the docks, but they said on VHF to park the boat in any empty slip. Most of them were empty. Richard went inside to pay and I did the tie up. The heads and showers were World War II construction and very clean. The paint was very thick and peeling off the woodwork in places. The plumbing was vintage from years gone by. The hot water was hot and I was happy because it was getting colder outside. I though this was suppose to Florida and warm? The Club wouldnít let us eat in the main dining room with the club members and we also had to have a coat and tie. They decided to feed us in a room next to the kitchen and they loaned us a coat and tie. Iím not sure about me, but Richard looked real good in his formal attire. The food was good and I peeped at the members in the dinning room now and then. They were mostly older people enjoying their retirement in a warm climate. Iím not sure how many owned boats? Maybe they kept them at docks next to their homes. There were only one or two boats in the slips where we were. We planned the next leg of our trip to Miami and slept well that night.

The next morning was cooler and maybe we had some frost on the boat. Where was the warm weather in Florida? As we got closer to Miami, we were going to have more bridges and more traffic. The ICW slims down width wise in this area and there are more people doing water related activities. We passed one person in a swimsuit behind a windbreak with a mirror trying to get a suntan. I was wearing a heavy coat and gloves and drinking lots of hot coffee. Richard asked me if I wanted to put 2 bags in my mouth and suck on them. I was at the wheel and I must have asked Richard for coffee one too many times. We passed those big condos that are between the ICW and the beach and tried our best to avoid traffic. Powerboats run fast in this area. We continued with the bridges and finally arrived in Miami. Our plan was to stay at the Miami Municipal Marina. We found a slip and realized that most of the signs at the marina were in Spanish. I heard that Miami has some high crime areas and we didnít know where they were, so we decided to stay close to the marina. A Hooterís chicken restaurant was close by so we had chicken that night. Our plan for the next leg was to cross Biscayne Bay and reach Key Largo before dark the next day.

We had about half a tank of fuel and we though this would be a good place to top off the tank. The dock master at the Municipal Marina said they didnít have fuel, but we could buy diesel on the other side of the ICW. By the other side, he meant a small business that sold snacks and fuel to fishermen and was located at a junction between the ICW and a big cruise ship docking area. The cruise ships parked in the channel, loaded their passengers and departed down the channel for far off places. A very large cruise ship had just crossed in front of us going towards the Municipal Marina. We needed to cross the channel used by the cruise ships to continue down the ICW. Since that cruise ship had just crossed in front of us, I though I would have time to cross the channel before the cruise ship had time to do a 360 and come back. I didnít realize that cruise ships are very fast and they have bow and stern thrusters. The ship made it down to his turning basin, turned 360 on a dime and started back at high speed. I knew he couldnít see me as small as I was and as big and tall as he was. We put the pedal to the metal and missed his bow with only a few yards to spare. I donít think I will do that again.

We left the big buildings of Minami behind and motored across Biscayne Bay with no wind. The Bay is big and the only structures seen from the middle of the Bay are the Power Stations on the mainland. It appeared that we went from a big city environment to a wild jungle in only a few miles. We saw a few fishing boats and a sailboat now and then and that was all. Biscayne Bay reminded me of the Delaware Bay, only a little smaller with a lot less current. We ran into scrub-covered islands at the southern end of the Bay. The ICW runs through that type of islands and under and through bridges that carry the one and only highway south and west to Key West. We passed though one more lift bridge at Key Largo and spent the night on the other side. I remembered seeing the movie Key Largo with Humphrey Bogart back when I was younger. It seems like only yesterday. I liked the movie and that wooden powerboat. We walked about a mile down the highway to a grocery store and purchased more coffee. It was getting warmer and my coffee intake was getting smaller. We planned our next leg down Florida Bay to Marathon. Marathon is about 40 miles from Key West and a good place to stop.

Florida Bay is shallow and you can see the bottom in the channel. The ICW follows the land on the port side with water as far as you can see on the starboard side. It would be a bad place to be caught in a storm. Grass grows in the channel and we picked up some in our engine cooling intake. The engine overheated, we had a red light and the buzzer sounded the alarm. The water strainer is in the starboard seat locker and the locker is big enough to get in and face your work. A little bit of taking apart and putting back together again and we were on our way. We passed a few islands with low hanging scrubs and that was about all we saw. You could see a few communities and boats on the port side from time to time. The port side is where humans live and the starboard side is all water. It appeared that we were going to be late again getting to Marathon. Marathon and life as we know it exist at some distance from the ICW. We arrived at the mile marker across from Marathon at twilight, but there wasnít a channel connecting the two. The water between the two locations were full of little islands and unknown water depths. Spending the night on the ICW didnít seem like a good idea. We decided to call ďanyone with local knowledgeĒ on the VHF. We did and didn't get a reply. We did it again and a voice answered my call. A nice person on shore gave us instructions on how to proceed. He said to make a left turn at a specific mark and take a compass course to Marathon. He said to look for a bright light in a lighthouse on shore. He said that was a marina that could handle us for the night. I must have said thank you four or five times. This was a black night without a moon. We had a few stars for light and thatís about all. We were motoring through lots of little islands and we really didnít want to go aground. Marathon had lots of lights and that made seeing anything forward of the bow very difficult. As we got close to the lights on shore, we saw the lighthouse and it was on the bow. The water between where we were and the lights on shore appeared to be more open without all those little island. As we were watching the lighthouse get closer, a sailing vessel of some size sailed by in front of us. You canít see a vessel at night until they cross your bow. You see them as a dark outline moving between you and the lights on shore. The vesselís lights couldnít be seen for all the background lights in Marathon. Iím guessing they were sailing tourist and that they never saw us. Although, our lights should have been seen because we had nothing but black behind us. After getting to the dock, I told Richard to take a line and hop on the dock. Richard said at his age, he didnít hop. I didnít ask him to hop again. We had 2 close calls in 2 days and Iím not talking about the grass in the engine intake. The cruise ship at Miami and the sailing vessel at Marathon were close calls. We found that most yachts visiting Marathon enter an anchorage at the south end of the island. Those boats have to dink ashore for shopping and services. A fixed dock worked better for us.

The marina at Marathon was really nice and we decided to leave the boat in Marathon and rent a car for a road trip to Key West. We did what everyone else does in Key West including having a cheeseburger in paradise at Jimmy Buffetís restaurant. It was pretty good. Finding a place to park a boat in Key West would have been difficult. Key West is a busy place in January. Like most cruises, the people and places you see on the way might be more interesting than your ultimate destination. Of course I spent all those years walking around foreign countries while I was in the service. Iím not much on sight seeing anymore.

Richard had another crewmember coming to replace me on the return trip. It has always been difficult for me to say good-bye to Richard. This was the third time that I left Richard and his boat at some remote location. I started saying good-bye to family and friends when I was 19 years old and I have done too much of that in my lifetime. Anyway, Richard and his crew took his boat to Pensacola and then on to Texas. After that, Richard decided to live on land for a while and he made his home in Pensacola. I took an airplane from Key West to Clearwater, finished my business at Com-Pac and headed for home. The boat performed flawlessly and it did what we wanted it to do. We confirmed that sailing or motoring at night isnít safe and should be avoided at all cost. We found that sailboats need a compass even if you are sailing down the ICW. We also found that cruise ships are really fast and they have bow and stern thrusters for super fast turns. Just about everyone living on the ICW are good and interesting people. The person responding to my VHF call for ďanyone with local knowledgeĒ was one of those good people. He was very accurate and a Saint Christopher to us. We never did find out who he was.

I saw Richard one last time before he died. We made a side trip to Pensacola and found Richard teaching and taking classes at the local community college. He missed his boat, but at 92 he didnít need a boat anymore. The picture of the 27 at the start of this story belonged to Richard. He sold it to a friend when they were in Texas. The boat is currently back home in New Bern, NC.