“Depth-Defying” Pelican Pass!
Where we left off last week:
“The mainsail wound up getting stuck on one of my lazy-jacks and I had to pull it back up to cajole it back into place, clear the lazy-jack, and get the sail all the way down. I turned the ‘Molly back to the East and realized that I’d put another half mile or so between me and the channel markers. I throttled up to head into the channel, and began to mentally prepare myself for what was to come in another hour or so … my nerve-racking entry into Pelican Bay…”
*Author’s note – in chronicling my travels, I often discuss concerns of running my boat aground. For those unfamiliar with sailboats, running aground is not simply an inconvenience. Yes, there are many small boats made that can be run right up to a beach, and can be pushed off when it’s time to go. But sailboats have heavy keels that make “ungrounding” them very, very difficult. Often a tow boat is required. Often the act of dragging a sailboat off a shallow shoal results in serious damage to its underside. Waves and wind can pound the keel and hull over and over against the seabed. If the tide goes out, sometimes removing a sailboat that is “hard aground” can be impossible without destroying it. Add to this the fact that my boat is my home – and shallow water becomes a stressful place to be.
Before I could worry about Pelican Bay, I needed to get through Boca Grande Pass. The pass at Boca Grande is deep. It’s wide. And, it’s LONG. It’s roughly 4.5 nautical miles from the first markers out in the Gulf to the point well inside the pass where I could make the starboard turn toward the Intracoastal Waterway.
Most medium and large sailboats (and even a lot of small ones) have auxiliary engines. The little day-sailers usually have anywhere from a 5 to 10 horsepower outboard engine mounted to their transoms. Larger vessels have permanently mounted inboard engines. The ‘Molly originally came with a 3-cylinder, 30 horsepower engine. However, because of the previous owner’s neglect, it was completely rusted through and useless. No amount of work would have restored it.
Back in 2010, when I first bought her, I was not as financially secure as I am now. But, I had to replace the engine. I found a guy in St. Petersburg who rebuilds marine engines, and he had the model that I needed. However, for $1,000 less, he had a 2-cylinder, 20 horsepower model from the same manufacturer. Back then, that was a no-brainer. I went with the cheaper option. The engine is enough to push the Molly along, getting her in and out of docks and ports, and can give her an extra knot or two if needed when the sails are up. However, ideally, a sailboat’s engine should push the vessel at about 5 – 7 knots. Molly’s engine gets her up to four knots when run at full throttle. When I have a current running in the opposite direction, or a strong wind at my nose, it gets much slower.
It took me almost two hours to get through the big pass at Boca Grande. I found the first red buoy marking the ICW off to starboard, and turned toward it. The waters started to calm and Molly’s bouncing and tossing diminished to the gentle rocking I’ve come to love so much. In another half hour, I was approaching Marker 74. It was just about crunch time.
I looked off the starboard bow, studying the pass. I could see the anchorage well inside the protected waters of Cayo Costa and its surrounding barrier islands. Through my binoculars, I found the “SLOW” sign that was my next target, some 300 yards off. Among a broad expanse of water was the narrow slit of deep water that I was to nose into – like threading a needle – to get into Pelican Bay. On either side of that slit was shallow water and sand bars. Every chart I had indicated that I would run aground. As the ‘Molly crept closer and closer to channel marker 74, I scanned all around, hoping and praying for another sailboat to come through the pass, and show me the way. I watched one small pleasure boat that passed me and went in. It seemed to be following the prescribed route into the pass although I knew it could easily run across the 4-foot shallows with no issue. I made mental notes on the path the vessel took, and made my turn toward the sign – my only guide to get me safely into this haven.
Slowly, slowly over the 8-foot depths I motored, watching the digital chart as it showed my progress in real time. As the little arrowhead icon that represented my current GPS position got closer and closer to the darker shaded section marked all over with “4’s” (indicating 4-foot depth), my heart began to beat faster and faster. It was almost a sickening feeling. A part of me really didn’t want to do this. In some ways, it didn’t seem worth the risk. But, this was the place I came to see. Sixty miles traveled at an average of three miles per hour to reach THIS place. I wasn’t about to give up and turn around. Besides, I could see sailboats larger than mine inside the anchorage. THEY got in somehow. I pushed on…
Foot by foot, the Floggin’ Molly meandered toward the big sign in the water that marked my veering-off point. I kept looking at the chart that said I was in 4 feet of water, then my depth sounder, continually clicking off the depths as I moved forward – 5 feet, 5.5, 6 feet, 5.7, 5.3. On and on it went. And, I was amazed to see that the chart was wrong! However, I kept waiting, waiting, expecting any second to feel the sluggish “BUMP” that would tell me that my keel had hit bottom. My heart kept pounding in my chest. Slowly the sign approached. Closer, closer, and closer it came to my bow. Finally, it was time to veer off.
As I turned gently to port, and lined up with the beach, I could see the shoals and sandbars just a few feet off to the left of my boat. To the right, the beach that popped up right out of the deep, snaking channel I was in. Sun worshipers and party-boaters standing around with beers in hand all watched me chug by. I wondered how many thought I was crazy. I wondered how many actually hoped that I’d run aground just for a chance for some visual entertainment.
The sand bars loomed just off the port beam, only feet away from the ‘Molly’s keel. I kept checking my depth sounder – 7 feet, 6.8 feet, 6.9 feet, 7 feet. I started to calm as the numbers changed less and less and, before long, I was past the spit of sand off to my right, and turned myself toward the other sailboats in the deep anchorage. I crept along through the water, checking the depths as I went, trying to find the perfect spot to line up my boat, and drop my anchor. The anchorage isn’t deep everywhere, and several spots actually set off my “shallow” alarm on the depth sounder. I’d quickly steer back into the last area I knew to be deep enough, and then try another path.
I finally found an area that continually showed 6 feet as I circled a couple of times, checking the 360 degree area that my boat would traverse once I had the anchor down. I lined the bow up into the wind, and took the engine out of gear. Trotting forward up to the bow, I unpinned the anchor, and waited until I detected the boat’s forward motion wane, then lowered the anchor to the ground as the wind started blowing the vessel gradually backward. After letting out about 50 feet of anchor line, I held on, and felt it tighten up. The anchor hooked perfectly and the ‘Molly began swinging gently on the line like a pendulum in the breeze. I kept the engine running in neutral, and watched my GPS track for another five minutes or so to ensure I was seeing a constant back and forth arch scribbled across the screen that would indicate that the boat wasn’t dragging the anchor. Once I was satisfied, I shut everything down and went below into the cabin.
I had been sailing /motoring for almost 11 hours. I was tired. Despite applying and re-applying sunscreen, I was burned. After a long day of sailing, for me, the moments just after getting the anchor set are difficult in their own right. I want to celebrate because I’ve reached my destination successfully. I want to sit and rest because I’m tired. But, usually the cockpit is a mess of ropes, equipment, and various items. There are preparations to be made to ensure the boat will be safe overnight. I’m usually hungry so there’s the question of what to eat. Do I settle for some pre-packaged quick meal, or do I fire up the stove, and go through the trouble of making myself a good, hot dinner? Being on the boat alone, it was all up to me – the cleaning, the cooking, the celebrating, the prepping for safety. No one else was there to do any of it for me so I needed to use my time wisely.
With all of these responsibilities before me, I decided that the best course of action was to take a nap. I knew I’d wake up a little more refreshed and clear headed. Later, when I awoke, I pulled out the last thick filet mignon I’d packed away for the trip, and threw it on my propane grill that was attached to my stern rail. I enjoyed the steak with some powdered mashed potatoes and canned sweet corn. The sun was down, the temperature had cooled, and I was in dining heaven. When you expose yourself to the elements and the forces of nature, it’s little comforts like these that can boost your spirits and re-energize you.
I got my little generator running, cleaned up the cockpit and cabin, washed my dishes, and then settled on deck to relax with a little rum and coke. Leaning against the mast as I sat on the deck, I stared up to the sky. There were no city lights and the night sky was incredibly black. Every star was a brilliant white dot. The constellations I recognized were shining more brightly than they do in St. Petersburg and I could see stars that normally are invisible in the city sky.
It reminded me of a lifetime ago when I was serving in Somalia. My unit was in a small town outside of Mogadishu and there was no electricity. We lived in a three-story bombed out building that once served as a governor’s palace. But, it was now just a big concrete skeleton containing the 984th MP company, its equipment, and weapons. My buddies and I would climb to the roof at night, and sit, reading letters from home, joking, talking about what we were going to do when we got back, and cursing the Marine helicopter gunships that would occasionally fly low, right over our heads, and disrupt our jovial conversation. From up there, overlooking the African landscape, and cradling our M-16’s, we felt like kings of the world. I remember being in awe of the stars in the sky. They were huge and brilliant. Because there was no electricity, there were no lights (except for those run inside our compound by our generators) and I couldn’t believe how many stars I could see in the sky. I remember wondering if I’d ever get a chance to come back someday when Somalia got its act together, and see this beautiful sky again without the sounds of automatic gunfire constantly in the distance. To this day it remains a failed state – too dangerous for westerners to visit.
Fast forward 24 years and here I was, no longer the 23-year-old soldier, but a 47-year-old sitting on the deck of his sailboat – still in awe that the sky holds so many spectacular points of light. There is a peace that comes from sitting in an anchorage at night, feeling the breeze across your skin, hearing the little waves lapping against the hull. Occasionally, you can hear the sound of lines clanging against masts of other boats, sounding like dampened cowbells in the distance. Looking out over the pitch black anchorage, the lights at the top of all the masts shine brighter than the stars in the sky. It’s quiet, it’s serene. I can’t find that peace anywhere else. It is unique and one of the things I love most about this form of travel. After awhile, I turned in, and slept like a baby as the gentle waves of the anchorage rocked the Floggin’ Molly back and forth throughout the night.
The next two days I spent onboard catching up on my BookLocker and WritersWeekly work. Just spending one day away from my computer results in a stack of work that requires two days to catch up on. In the early evenings, I’d fish off the stern. There was constantly a school of bait fish – shiners – swimming around just under my boat. So, I’d throw some tiny hooks with small bread balls on them to catch the small fish to bait my line for bigger fish.
At one point, something big took the line. It shot across the anchorage like a rocket and I started trying to reel in before whatever it was could take my line under someone else’s anchor or boat. However, as I tried to haul the fish in, it kept pulling more and more line out. I tightened up the drag on the reel. The pole was bending wildly as the line stretched and stretched. I fought the unknown monster – pulling and reeling, pulling and reeling – excited and eager to see what I’d caught! After a few more minutes, the line suddenly went slack. I knew exactly what had happened, and reeled in, expecting to find the empty, broken line at the end. What I found instead was that whatever grabbed my hook had actually cut (or bit) through my wire leader! That leader had to be three times as strong as the mono-filament line I was using.
Well, anyone who’s fished before can guess exactly what I did. I quickly re-rigged another leader, weight and hook, baited it, and cast into the same area. Yep, I was gonna CATCH that sucker THIS time! (Or one of his friends!) Unfortunately, for the rest of the night, all I caught were big, nasty catfish that would slime my deck every time I hauled them in to de-hook them. After another hour or so of failing to haul in any fodder for my frying pan, I decided to give it up and watch “Casa Blanca” on my computer for the rest of the evening..
After two days of working below in the cabin, I was showing signs of cabin fever, and decided I was ready for some shore time. I set up the dinghy, packed a bag with sunscreen, extra water, a lunch, a towel, and my camera equipment. After double-checking the anchor’s hold, and securing the boat, I took the 7-minute dinghy ride to the pubic docks in front of the Cayo Costa ranger station.
Cayo Costa is not quite as remote and primitive as some would have me believe. There are large docks there leading up to a big, covered area built for people waiting on the water taxis, as well as waiting for the island tram. That’s right! They have a tram to cart visitors across the island to the various amenities. The amenities include camping cabins, “primitive” tent camping areas, and a public beach on the west (gulf) side of the island. There is fresh running water on the island. Next to the ranger station, there is a “camp store” that offers ice, drinks, snacks, and bait. There’s also a kayak rental shack.
Once I got to the docks, I tied up my dinghy, slung my pack on my back, and headed to the ranger office. I passed a group of British tourists bombarding one of the park rangers with nervous questions relating to a posted sign that warned of the presence of alligators on the island. I’ve lived in Florida all my life, and seen a thousand gators. Basically, the rules are simple. If you see a gator, give it wide berth, don’t mess with it, (and keep your small poodle away) and 99 times out of 100 it will lay there and act like you don’t even exist. I couldn’t help but chuckle a little at the tourists, coaxing re-assurances from the ranger that the gators weren’t going to spring out of the water and eat them. I wanted to avoid the touristy areas, which would include the public beach and camping areas, and wander the less traveled parts of the island, so I dropped into the office, and picked up a park map. I chose a path that took me up the east side of the island in a northerly direction.
Even though I live on a boat, I’m still an outdoors / hiker / camper at heart. So, I’m equally at home in the woods as I am on the water. In fact, considering what the Florida sun does to my egret-white Irish skin, I often prefer a nice forest canopy over my head to being bombarded all day with UV rays from the sky, water, AND my boat deck. I strolled through the oak-palm hammock, and kept a sharp eye for wildlife. Occasionally the terrain would change to dry mangrove swamp and I found it strange to see mangroves as far inland as I was. Mangroves usually grow where their roots are submerged most of the time. But, here the landscape was dry, except for the seasonal rains. There were birds and the common chameleon lizards found throughout Florida. But, unfortunately, I found no really unique animals. I’ve read that there are feral hogs on the island. However, I figure they probably stay in the areas not frequented by humans. Florida hogs are pretty skittish animals, and tend to shy away from people.
After about 45 minutes of hiking, I emerged at the northeastern edge of the island. Greeted by aqua blue water, white sand, and beautiful sea-grape trees, I snapped several pictures. The scene could easily be mistaken for an island in the Caribbean. Near the shore, the water was crystal clear and I could see fish darting among the rocks. After snapping lots of photos, I found a comfortable spot to sit and eat lunch. The sun was high in the sky and I had to stay in the shade, or flirt with the chance of another nasty sunburn. This year’s winter has been lingering on but summer is close without a doubt. During this time of year, Florida temperatures can fluctuate drastically in a 24-hour period – climbing into the upper 80s during the day, and dropping as low as the 50s at night. The temperatures can fool the unwary outdoors-man. Even in the comfortable mid 70’s, the UV factor from the sun can still be a scorching 10. After my lunch and a re-application of sunscreen, I continued until I reached the northern tip of the island. This area overlooks Boca Grande pass and I took a minute or two to reminisce on my heart-pumping passage through this giant waterway just days before.
My walk back to the docks seemed quicker and I arrived just as another load of tourists were boarding the tram, and getting their welcome briefing from the tram driver. This time the question from a concerned camper was about whether or not there were snakes on the island. I shook my head with a sigh, and plopped down on one of the waiting benches. I had to bite my tongue, because I was seconds away from blurting out in my best “Florida Hick” drawl, “SNAKES?? Forget the snakes! Look out for the GATORS!!” (I’ll bet I could have emptied out that tram!) Instead, I sat and guzzled what was left of my water before slipping off my hiking boots, and boarding my dinghy. My day wasn’t over yet and I decided to putt around the water’s edge, and check out the mangroves bordering the island.
As I was working my way upwind, gazing into the mangrove trees for birds, fish, and other wildlife, I suddenly caught a glimpse of movement off my bow. I looked quickly, just in time to see two dolphin fins drop beneath the surface, heading right for my dinghy! I quickly turned the electric motor to direct the dinghy in the dolphins’ direction. I had my GoPro camera on a 5-foot extension pole (I refuse to call it a “Selfie-Stick) so I wanted the chance to try to get an underwater shot of them. As I crossed the area between my dinghy and where I saw the fins, I poked the camera under the surface, hoping it would catch a glimpse of the elusive animals. After holding the camera underwater for about 20 seconds, I heard a blowhole behind me, and turned the boat around to where I saw the two playing. I stuck the camera under the surface again as I saw the dolphins down below. This cat and mouse game kept on for about 15 minutes. It was like the two aquatic mammals were enjoying a good game of “Marco Polo.” They’d surface and blow, then I’d chase after them – camera pointing just feet away from their shapes in the water.
When I got aboard the ‘Molly, I downloaded all the video footage, and poured over it. As it turns out, the water was too murky and, even though I was only a few feet away from the dolphins each time, most of the footage had no dolphins in it. But the endeavor wasn’t a complete failure. I posted the successful video snippet HERE.
That night I spent another evening on the deck contemplating the stars, and enjoying the cool, salty night air before turning in. It was so relaxing to finally be at my destination, and be able to slow down and enjoy everything.
But Mother Nature had some surprises in store for me…
Next Week – “Anchor Rodeo,” and Mangrove Madness
Brian Whiddon is the Managing Editor of WritersWeekly.com and the Operations Manager at BookLocker.com. Brian is an Army vet and former police officer, and spent several years chained to a desk, commuting Tampa's congested roadways, working in corporate management and training, while writing in his spare time. He is now an author, and avid sailor, and NRA-certified firearms instructor. Brian lives and works aboard his 36-foot sailboat, the “Floggin’ Molly” in St. Petersburg, Florida. He calls her his "rescue boat" that he found abandoned in a boat yard and rebuilt himself - fulfilling a dream he had to one day live aboard. Brian no longer commutes, and has donated all his business slacks, collared shirts, and ties to Goodwill.