From Last Week:
I popped the transmission into forward, rolled on the throttle, and performed a circle to port back through the deeper water I came from. Then, I was able to make another approach a little further toward the middle of the water. In another 15 minutes, I was overjoyed to see the old railroad bridge marking the end of the channel and the opening to the main ICW. After a radio call to the the active bridge just upstream from the old bridge span, I was granted an opening and was on my way North.
Despite the worsening weather conditions, I relaxed a little and looked forward to making my way to Venice, hoping to find a safe place to anchor for the night…
For now, I had the pleasure of traversing yet another stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) that I hadn’t yet been through. Almost two weeks prior, I had sailed up the outside, in the gulf. Therefore, the entire stretch from Boca Grande to Venice was all new to me. This is another reason I love being on the water. Every new place I go is like a new adventure and discovery.
Just north of the Boca Grande bridge, the channel runs through the wide open Placida Harbor. It’s well marked with decent depths on either side of it. But after about a half mile, it narrows to just around 75 feet wide. On the left side are mangrove islands and the occasional lagoon here and there that, according to the charts, were only 2 and 3 feet deep. On the right, houses, houses, houses – all lined up on concrete sea walls. The wind was already starting to pick up a bit, which slowed my pace. But, I knew I had a long day ahead of me and there was no reason to be in any kind of hurry.
Going over my charts, I realized that marinas able to accommodate my boat were few and far between. The Crow’s Nest in Venice, about 25 miles away, would have been the only logical option. Everything else was either too close (I wanted to cover some good ground before stopping) or their entrances were too shallow. However, with the winds at 25 mph, I really had no desire to attempt a docking at Crow’s Nest where they would have put me at their long transient dock, trying to slide in between other already docked boats. Imagine attempting to parallel park into a tight space between two other cars, on a steep hill, with bald tires and a big oil slick right under your car the entire time. That’s what it’s like to dock a sailboat in heavy wind and current.
I decided my best bet was going to be anchoring in an area just north of Venice called Blackburn Bay. There, just to the west of the deep channel, is a large area about the size of a football field that is five feet deep – just enough for my boat to stay comfortably above the bottom with a little room to spare. And anchoring is a lot easier than docking.
But I wouldn’t need to worry about all that until much later. For now, I was enjoying a leisurely cruise in this narrow passage, watching the various birds among the mangroves. At one point, a manatee surfaced several times just ahead of me. I quickly slowed the engine from a crawl to a dead crawl to give it plenty of time to submerge nice and deep to avoid my keel, rudder, and spinning propeller. Manatees are really cool animals to watch. But, generally, they don’t surface for too long. So, to see one for any time at all is an exciting moment.
By the time I reached the bridge at Beach Road near Manasota Key (known as the Tom Adams Bridge), the winds had picked up to a respectable 15 – 17 mph. I apparently had the current with me as I was able to maintain about three knots. I was in for a real disappointment when I reached the bridge. It’s supposed to open upon request over the radio. But, because of construction, the bridge was only opening every half hour – and it had just opened several minutes prior to my arrival. So, I had 30 minutes to wait and, with the wind blowing the way it was, I couldn’t just put the engine in neutral and sit. I had to keep moving – basically motoring in one direction for awhile, only to turn 180 degrees and motor the other direction for awhile. And, to make things more interesting, the channel was narrow with two-foot sandbars as well as exposed sandbars all along its length immediately outside the markers. The photo below shows a satellite picture of this stretch of water. The light areas show shallow sand bars. The dark areas show sand bars that were high and dry. Add to this lots and lots of fast motorboat traffic that I had to constantly dodge and it all made for a tedious half hour.
Eventually, the bridge did open and I continued on my way northward. My engine kept chug-chug-chugging along, taking me slowly home. The wind was still building up and my speed had slowed to about 2.5 knots. The next stretch was Lemon Bay. It has lots of shallows itself outside the main channel and, occasionally, I passed the rotting hulks that served as reminders of other mariners’ mistakes. These boats were so hard aground that it would cost as much as buying another boat to get it off the sand and oysters. I stayed safely inside the channel, and imagined the stress these people must have gone through as their vessels came to an abrupt stop as they were motoring through the slim, poorly marked side channels branching off the main channel. A few of these vessels met their final resting place only yards from a marina entrance. They were almost home free.
Just after passing through the Manasota Beach Road bridge, I entered into Manasota and South Venice. On the west side of the channel, the beautiful houses of Manasota Key passed slowly one by one. On the east side, a very long swath of undeveloped land provided a wild natural habitat for plenty of birds – as well as a gorgeous view that contrasted perfectly with the manicured lawns on the other side. There were lots of little pockets and streams that plunged deep into the mangroves and I would have loved to launch the dinghy and do some exploring. Unfortunately, this was another narrow channel and there was absolutely nowhere to legally drop anchor. And, there was still the wind to contend with. I motored on and simply enjoyed the sights while having a leisurely lunch.
Just south of Venice itself, the ICW becomes like a canal. It is deep right up to the land, without mud flats or shallows. High, steep banks overlook the waterway on either side. The water was calm and the high banks actually helped block the wind a bit. The ICW turns north-northeast, then due north, and then northwest around the Venice airport. Clearly, this was a 100% man-made section of the ICW as the high banks and smart 45-degree turns lacked any natural characteristics. This stretch took me under three more bridges – the Circus Bridge (the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus spent three decades wintering in Venice), the Venice Blvd. Bridge, and the Hatchett Creek Bridge. Each of these were a short wait to get through.
Finally I was entering Venice again! The winds were even stronger now and, after motoring past the Crow’s Nest marina and the inlet, I noticed that the tide was going out and the current was very fast. Weeks before, while I was staying at Crow’s Nest, I had been talking to a local sailboat cruise captain who told me that she has seen currents in Venice reach six and seven knots. Watching the water whoosh past the channel markers, I estimated the current was moving at about four knots and, as I left the inlet behind me, that current was now running against me. My speed dropped to just two knots.
Luckily, I only had one last bridge to pass under. With my engine fighting at full throttle against the wind and current, it still took me an extra long time to get past that bridge. When you know that a bunch of people are being held up in traffic because of YOU, minutes seem like hours as the your boat creeps foot by foot through the open spans of a baseless bridge.
After another half hour in a narrow stretch of the channel, I finally broke out into the wider expanse of Blackburn Bay. However, it was now late in the day and the dropping temperatures were causing the winds to increase even more. I was now moving at just about 1.5 knots, which is only about 1.75 mph. It took me yet another two hours to get to the spot in Blackburn Bay where I could turn out of the channel, and anchor for the night. The wind was blowing hard, the boat was moving slow, and I was dead tired. It may look like someone motoring along in a sailboat isn’t doing much but the sun, the wind, and the pitching and bobbing of the boat, mixed with the constant alertness one has to maintain the entire time the boat is moving, all conspire to drain the life out of a sailor.
I’d never been happier to drop an anchor. It was about 6:00 p.m. and I collapsed onto one of my settees below in the cabin and napped for about an hour or so. When I woke up later, I made my dinner, and prepped for the night, including attaching several extra lights to my lifelines for visibility. I was only about 30 yards outside the main channel and there was still plenty on powerboat traffic going by. I didn’t want to end up getting struck by someone veering out of the channel.
When I awoke the next morning about 6:00 a.m., the winds and water had once again become calm. I had the anchor up, and was on my way again just before sunrise. The winds stayed moderate throughout the morning as I motored through the open Blackburn Point Bridge, Little Sarasota Bay, Stickney Point, and Roberts Bay. The pelicans were out in force that morning and I managed to get some great pictures.
Going under the John Ringling Causeway in Sarasota was the point at which I felt “almost home.” There were dozens of sailboats out on Sarasota Bay and a regatta was going on. The wind was good and strong – and still coming from directly in front of me. Tacking upwind was possible. However, it would have required a very obtuse angle to the direction I wanted to go, and would have doubled the time it was going to take me to get across the bay. I stayed my course and kept the motor going. I apparently had the current with me because I was keeping up three knots.
Traffic was heavy in the channel between Sister Keys and Longboat Key as it was a Saturday. The ‘Molly rocked and bobbed over the wakes of fishing boats, pleasure cruisers, jet skis, and pontoon boats going by. As I rounded Jewfish Key, four juvenile dolphins started playing around my boat, surfacing here and there, and darting under the keel.
I passed through Cortez with its fish processing docks and big fishing boats. I got to the Cortez bridge just in time for its next opening. Then, it was a mad dash to make it to my last bridge – the Anna Maria Island Bridge – within the next 30 minutes. I pushed the engine full throttle to catch the next opening, and avoid having to wait yet another half hour for another chance to go through the bridge. I was still about five minutes away when the bridge opened, but the bridge tender was kind enough to hold the bridge open for me to get through.
FINALLY! I was in the wide expanse of water just off Anna Maria Island! Within the next hour and a half, I was on my way to the mouth of the Manatee River. By chance, I fell in with an incoming regatta. I’d seen the sailboats racing off in the distance and, as it turned out, they were coming from a marina on the Manatee River. After finally arriving at the DeSoto National Memorial, I circled around and anchored in a spot with another sailboat about 100 feet behind me. The wind was still very brisk and I prepared my secondary anchor at the bow before fixing dinner, and cleaning up the cabin. As the sun went down, the temperature plummeted from the 80s to the 60s and my shower in the cockpit that night was uncomfortably cold. But the next day, I would sail across Tampa Bay and be home once again. My spirits were high, and I turned in for the night.
To my grave disappointment, I woke up the next morning to find that the wind direction had changed and the tide was low. All boats in the anchorage were facing the opposite direction from the night before. The tide going out had changed the angle of everyone’s anchor lines, making all the boats rest further from their anchors. Unfortunately, I had grossly underestimated how much anchor line the boat behind me had out. The same boat was now IN FRONT of me – and only a foot or two away from my bow! This meant that it was resting directly over my anchor line. Luckily, this was an unoccupied boat. It had been in the exact same spot three weeks ago when I stayed in this anchorage. So, I didn’t have to concern myself with the embarrassment of facing anyone on that boat as I tried to get myself free.
I made some coffee and went up to the bow to assess my predicament. After several minutes of observing the winds and the swing of the obstruction in front of me, I realized that if I timed everything right, I could haul in my anchor just as the other boat swung across my bow, and it would pull me alongside the other vessel just long enough to get my anchor aboard. The wind would immediately push me backwards once the anchor was out of the mud, buying me a little more time to get back into the cockpit and get the engine in gear. At least that was the idea…
My idea actually worked pretty well at the start. After starting the engine in neutral, I went forward and waited for the other boat to swing across my bow. Then I quickly pulled on the anchor line and began hauling it in. My boat began drifting backwards while turning off the wind toward the other boat. With the anchor up and resting in its roller, I ran back to the cockpit to throw the engine in gear, and get the bow turned off and away from the other vessel. Everything was going smoothly when I suddenly heard a loud “CLANK,” and a “SPLASH,” followed by a “RATTLE-RATTLE-RATTLE-RATTLE!!” as my anchor (which I had not pinned in place in its roller) fell back into the water. I quickly stopped the engine and ran forward to secure the anchor line. As I grabbed it and stopped its free-fall into the water, I realized the anchor had dropped under the other boat again! I had to get everything set up and repeat the process all over again. However, this time I pinned the anchor in place as soon as I got it on the deck. I got back in the cockpit, gently backed the ‘Molly away from the anchored boat, and then headed out to the river.
The wind was coming from the east, directly behind me. Once I left the river, I would be heading northwest, which meant the wind would be on my rear starboard quarter – a perfect sailing position. Interestingly enough, I wound up falling in with the same regatta heading back out for another race as I had coming in the day before. It took about 30 minutes to get to the last channel marker. Then I turned Molly’s nose into the wind and hauled up the mainsail. After turning her back off the wind and getting her underway, I killed the engine, and savored the silent motion of the vessel under sail. Then, I hauled out the jib and secured it to the port cleat. The ‘Molly heeled over and took off like a sled down a steep hill. After two straight days of crawling along with an engine constantly rumbling down below, it was such a relief to finally have the sails up again, and to be slicing through the water quietly – just the way the Floggin’ Molly was made to do!
The next few hours were spent at a brisk five to six knots with a healthy heel as I got closer and closer to my home marina. As I got close, I decided that my sail that day hadn’t lasted long enough, and tacked back the way I came. I sailed for about another hour before turning back, and pointing the Molly’s nose toward the entrance channel. The wind kept up beautifully, which allowed me to sail right into the basin on the inside of the jetty. My trip was almost done!
Prior to my final approach, I’d called Angela and given her my ETA to the marina. As I motored down the row of docks, I saw the Hoy family waiting for me to pull in, and help me get tied up. I eased the ‘Molly’s nose into the slip, and threw bow lines to Angela and Richard. Once the boat was safely secured to her dock, there was one more task left to complete.
If you read my column on days 1-4 of this trip, I mentioned that the Hoys had thrown me a little “Bon-Voyage” party on the boat with champagne. Actually they had brought two bottles so I could have another one to celebrate my arrival at Cayo Costa. But, I didn’t open that bottle at Cayo Costa. 🙂
I’d saved that bottle and it was in my refrigerator all day as I’d made my way back to St Pete. I had the Hoy family climb aboard and we popped open the bottle of champagne and drank to my safe arrival. My adventure over, I sat back in the cockpit with my good friends, and relaxed with a cold glass of bubbles to tell everyone how awesome the day had been. But, we didn’t stay there long. The temperatures had climbed to the upper 80s and the sun was beating down on us unmercifully. So, we locked up the boat and headed over to the “Home Office,” 18 floors above St Pete for a fantastic dinner…in air -conditioned comfort.
The next day, I encountered one last irony from my trip:
I was stripping my sails off the boat to clean and store away. After having moaned and groaned about the winds not being right to go sailing for so much of the trip, I discovered that my jib halyard was chaffed and frayed almost completely through at the point the halyard loops over the pulley in the mast. Had I done all the sailing I wanted to do, I would have snapped my halyard days, maybe weeks prior. As it was, my not using the sails had preserved the halyard long enough to allow me one final day of wonderful sailing in good, strong winds. So, once more, all things – even the tough luck events – had worked out for good in the end.
So, in the end, it didn’t turn out to be the kind of sailing trip I had envisioned. Many more challenges came my way than I had expected. But then again – what adventure ever unfolds exactly as we plan? Not getting to sail as much as I wanted afforded me the opportunity to navigate other waters and take a few chances here and there. The boat came back in one piece. I only got wet when I planned on it (I’ve fallen overboard in the past – not fun). And, to be honest, I chose to live on a sailboat precisely because of the challenges presented in day to day life. I’m never comfortable when my life is all smooth and easygoing. I like a little pressure to keep me attentive.
I also got to learn new waters, so that the next time I go into that area, I have better local knowledge – and THAT will give me more options. For instance, I’ll have no fear now of entering Pelican Pass at night, I found anchoring locations I didn’t know about before, and I have much more experience with the ICW – stuff I didn’t understand before. The Floggin’ Molly’s next adventure is going to be a trip to the boat yard for new bottom paint and some new lettering. I have a number of other repairs and upgrades planned for her as well. By the time I’m ready for the next “big trip,” the ‘Molly will be like a new boat!
Brian Whiddon is the Managing Editor of WritersWeekly.com and the Operations Manager at BookLocker.com. An Army vet and former police officer, Brian is the author of Blue Lives Matter: The Heart behind the Badge. He's an avid sailor, having lived and worked aboard his 36-foot sailboat, the “Floggin’ Molly” for 9 years after finding her abandoned in a boat yard and re-building her himself. Now, in northern Georgia, when not working on WritersWeekly and BookLocker, he divides his off-time between hiking, hunting, and farming.