Custom Search
   boat plans
   gift certificates
Join Duckworks
Get free newsletter
on this site
by Shawn Payment - Johns Island, South Carolina - USA

Part One - Part Two


Way back in March 2015, I had a goal.  Sail the Everglades Challenge solo.  I had completed the EC in 2014 with a friend on his Sea Pearl 21’.  This year, my plan was to sail the route all by my lonesome on my 16'6" Saroca, an odd little out-of-production sailing canoe.  Unfortunately, plans are often overcome by events.

Although I had a great sail from Fort DeSoto to check point one at Cape Haze Marina, I was greeted with the sobering news that the Coast Guard had essentially cancelled the remainder of the race due to several participants having to be rescued during the initial crossing of Tampa Bay. I was told that I was welcome to sail on, on my own, without the "burden" of the Everglades Challenge requirements, but I also got the sense that if I did, and I had problems further on down the course, that it could potentially be me, little ol' me, who might be responsible for the ultimate demise of the WaterTribe and all of it's future endeavors.  Who needs that kind of responsibility?

“Lawless” enroute checkpoint 1 aboard my trusty Saroca

Crestfallen about not reaching Key Largo in my second attempt, I recovered my boat, packed up my gear and drove for home a week earlier than expected.


I was still jonesing to go sailing - and not just my usual little day sails around my local waters but a real adventure to parts-unknown!  Fortunately, there was another opportunity on the horizon - the Florida 120.

The Florida 120 is an annual "moving mess-about" started by Scott Widmier in 2009.  When I was still working for a living, it was one of the annual events that I would follow wistfully on a computer screen, dreaming of the day when I might no longer be shackled by the need for a regular paycheck.  Thankfully, those days had arrived and I was finally free to sail off into the sunset - and this time, the Coast Guard wasn't going to rain on my parade.

However, there were still preparations to be made.  In October 2014, shortly after returning from the annual small boat gathering that is Sail Oklahoma, I stumbled into an irresistible deal on a 1989 West Wight Potter.  I wasn't a Potter aficionado per se, but a deal is a deal and I was confident that I could quickly whip my latest "project" into shape.

Six months later and I am furiously trying to pull all the various bits and pieces back together before the Florida 120.  The hull was now watertight, the moldy, flaking cabin interior had been completely re-finished and all of the hardware re-bedded.  I was still playing with the rig and various control lines but I was comfortable that she wouldn't sink and wouldn't kill me.  Good enough.

My newly acquired 1989 West Wight Potter, “Bandit”

Although I had reviewed the charts, courses and anchorages for the Florida 120 in great detail, I had never actually taken a look at the route from my home in South Carolina to the starting point in Pensacola, FL.  A quick click on Google maps and whoa! - 600 miles and about 9 hours one way.  Could it really be that far?  Oh well, no way to get there but to get there.

Ready to roll!

I left my home near Charleston, SC early on the morning of Wednesday, May 13, 2015 and arrived at Shoreline Park in Gulf Breeze, FL about 9 ½ hours later.  I spent much of the trip arguing with my GPS about its predicted arrival time which my mental calculations determined could not possibly be accurate.  I was only about 3 hours out when it finally dawned on me that I was changing time zones - Pensacola being on Central Standard Time and one hour behind Charleston.

I arrived in at Shoreline Park at about 3 p.m.  The sun was shining and the breeze was blowing.  My goal was to get my boat rigged and underway so that I could make the anchorage at Big Sabine Point before dark.  Mike Howell was already in the parking lot rigging his Suncat and in the next few minutes, several other boats arrived as well.  Fortunately, rigging a Potter 15 is a fairly simple task and within about 30 minutes I was ready to launch.

“Bandit” is ready for action!

Pushing off from the dock at Shoreline Park, I set course for Big Sabine.  In comparison to the Saroca that I had been sailing the past few years, the Potter is a remarkably stable and comfortable little boat.  I sailed under a bridge and set course for the tall condos on the outer shore.  My understanding was that Big Sabine Point was in the shallow bay just on the lee side of those condos.  When I finally cleared the point and could view the bay shore, I was surprised to see not a single boat.  Could that be right?  Was I the only person here?  I struggled with the idea of a lonely night on a lonely shore.  Fortunately, I had printed out several charts that had been posted by Scott Widmier and quickly deduced that Big Sabine was actually the next point another mile or so ahead.  I reset my course and continued on.

Enroute to Sabine Point

Finally rounding the true Big Sabine Point, I was happy to see a nice grouping of a dozen or more boats already anchored on the beach.  In short order, I began to hear shouts of welcome. Minutes later, my little Potter joined the line of interesting small boats anchored along the shore of the shallow cove.

At Sabine Point

Someone handed me a cool, refreshing beverage and the remainder of the evening was spent sitting comfortably on the quiet beach, swapping sea stories and making plans for the next few days.  Boats continued to arrive until well after dark, often being guided in by a wave of a flashlight and a variety of humorously shouted instructions.  Eventually, the beach crowd began to thin and I crawled into my Potter’s cozy little cabin for my first night’s sleep aboard.

Shoreline Park to Big Sabine - 10 miles

Day One, Thursday, May 14, 2015:  Big Sabine to Specter Island

The Florida 120 “officially” began on Thursday, May  14, 2015 with the idea being for participants to launch from the starting point of their choosing with the goal of arriving at Specter Island, a spoil island about 30 miles due east along Santa Rosa Sound.  I awoke to a beautiful morning and crawled out of my tiny cabin to greet the day.  One great advantage to a “pocket yacht” like the Potter is that there is minimal  fuss involved to break down camp and get sailing - just climb out of the cabin, make a cup of coffee, pull in the anchor and you are off!

Sunrise at Big Sabine

I pushed off the beach at about 7 a.m.  The wind was coming more or less from the east so I began tacking up the intracoastal.  I was pleasantly surprised by how high Bandit could point and I began to pull away from several other boats as we climbed to windward.  After a couple of hours, I reached “The Pavillions - a group of public beach shelters featuring restrooms and cold water showers.  De-salted and refreshed, I continued to tack up the sound.

At midday, I was nearing the Navarre Bridge and I could see several other boats making a beeline for “Juana’s”, a well-known beach bar at the foot of the bridge.  Lured by the thought of lunch and a cool beverage, I followed in kind.

Juana’s Pagodas and Sailors’ Grill

Refueled and refreshed, I departed Juana’s and continued my journey. The wind had veered SSW and I was able to comfortably hold my easterly course without the need to tack.  It was a more or less relaxing sail except for the frequent sounds of military gunnery exercises coming from the nearby Elgin Air Force Base to the North.  Larger, faster boats continued to pass me as we continued east, giving me regular opportunity to exchange greetings.

Mike Mangus speeds by in his Little Tri
An American 16 skippered by ???
Young Skipper Eleanor Tyner with dad first-mate John Tyner in their S&S Lightning

Finally, at around 5:30 p.m., Specter Island hove into view with a few dozen boats already at anchor.  I pulled ashore, dropped sails and rigged for cocktail hour.  Specter Island proved to be a hospitable, little spoil island with a sheltered inner cove and a sandy, bowl-shaped hollow in the interior which made for a comfortable, evening bonfire gathering place.

Bandit at Specter Island
Specter Island fleet

As darkness fell, Organizer Scott Widmier made a few brief announcements which, in light of the recent Everglades Challenge fiasco, basically amounted to:  “Hey!  Thanks for coming!  I want to emphasize that the Florida 120 is not an “event” so to speak.  It’s just fortunate happenstance that we all happened to choose this particular weekend and this particular location to gather.  That said, it’s good to see you and you’re on your own.  Again, thanks for coming out to our non-event!  I hope to see you at other non-locations in the near future!”

With that brief non-announcement, Scott stepped down off his non-official, non-soapbox and we went back to chattering about boat, beaches and beverages while non-troubadour John Bell churned out a few classic non-tunes to which we could non-sing-a-long, as one’s personal inclinations may or may have not desired.   Eventually, we all drifted off to our non-beds as non-thunderclouds rumbled in the distance for a peaceful night’s non-sleep.

Big Sabine to Specter Island - 30 miles

Day Two, Friday, May 15, 2015:  Specter Island to Sand Island

Dawn broke to cloudy skies and light breezes out of the east.  Today’s destination was to be Sand Island - another spoil island about 40 miles back west.  This would be our longest leg of the trip so I rose with the sun, waved farewell to the fleet and sailed away from Specter Island at 6:30 a.m.  Patrick Johnson had a similar plan in his Michalak Fat Cat “Kat Kan Dew” and so we sailed in company in the light morning breeze.

Bandit departing
Patrick Johnson’s Michalak Fat Cat “Kat Kan Dew”

After a few hours, the Santa Rosa Sound widens up and the breeze filled in to a steady 10+ knots.  Bandit was cruising along wing & wing at a steady 4-5 knots and slowly but surely, faster boats began to overtake us from astern.

Bandit leads the fleet up Santa Rosa Sound
Scott Widmier’s self-designed scow “Otis” and John Bell’s Core Sound 17’ “Bandaloop” struggle to overtake Bandit.  (We let them pass to preserve their fragile egos…)

At a quick refreshment break back at the Pavillions, Scott Widmeir suggested stopping at Pensacola Beach for lunch.  He didn’t have to twist my arm much.  I chased him down the sound and by mid-day we were arrived at a beach front bar known as Flounder’s Chowder House.

Pat Johnson, Bird Fleming, Scott Widmeir, Myself and the “other” Pat Johnson
At Flounders I was introduced to a local libation known as “Diesel Fuel” – which I immediately deemed the “(non)official fuel of the Florida 120”

Re-fueled on diesel fuel and fish tacos, we set sail once again for the last push to Sand Island.  The breeze had continued to build so both Scott and I tied in a reef and proceeded into Pensacola Bay.  While Scott choose hugged the shoreline in search of smoother waters in the building breeze, Bandit and I blasted directly across the bay, dodging huge “death barges” and making 5-6 kts even with the reef.

Dodging “death barges” as we cross Pensacola Bay

Being a gracious host and guide, Scott called me on the radio to point out historic Fort Pickens on the port bow.  There would be no more tourist stops today however.  My eye was on the prize and Bandit and  I were looking forward to reaching our next anchorage.  Finally, at around 4:30 p.m., we arrived at Sand Island - 40 miles and 10 hours after departing Specter.   It had been a great run!

Bandit arrives at Sand Island
The fleet tucks in at Sand Island
Specter Island to Sand Island - 40 miles

To comment on Duckworks articles, please visit one of the following:

our Yahoo forum our Facebook page