An enduring memory from the Everglades Challenge in 2015 came in southern Sarasota. John Bell and I, along with a couple other competitors, were pulled over on an island, abiding by instructions from the Coast Guard following a morning of strong winds in Tampa Bay that has resulted in numerous rescues.
The Coast Guard had officially cancelled the challenge although weather conditions had markedly improved (and in fact were benign). They finally had given permission for participants to go to the first checkpoint near Placida, and drop out there. We were pausing to comply with the order to stop and take stock and were wondering when to get underway again.
Then a couple other Challenge boats passed by, including John Wright in his toothpick of a boat, Thang, proceeding as though without a care in the world. That did it. We were off that island.
John had camped with us at Ft. Desoto on the two nights before the start and set up Thang on the starting beach behind John Bell's Core Sound 17, Bandaloop. I was camped near him again at Cape Haze Marina, the first checkpoint, after the official end of the EC. But I didn't get a chance to talk fully with him about his adventure this year for a few weeks. It's quite a story. Anyone who knows John realizes he would never write it up himself. So you'll have to make do with my inadequate attempt.
First, a word about Thang. John built it a couple years ago. It's his interpretation/adaption of the venerable International 110 sailboat - without the heavy iron keel. John's first sailboat was a International 110 he saw in Texas, eventually bought, and taught himself to sail in. Thang has about the same length and beam, at 20 feet and 3 feet 9 inches respectively, as a 110, but he took the rocker out of the bottom except for a little athwartships curve in the middle. The bottom is thick foam sandwiched between thin wood and fiberglassed on both sides, something John has done before.
Thang can carry two lateen sails, one fore and one aft, each about 50 square feet. John can set a third lateen, about 60 square feet, in the middle of the boat in stronger winds. All the sails reef, and he can set one of the 50 footers in the middle as well. This was the first chance he had to extensively sail Thang.
Although the boat performed well in the EC, John says, "I've decided to retire it. What I've decided is that it's too uncomfortable. It sails great, although I never did put up the light wind sails. There's not enough room in there to move around and to put things and have things and whatever else available."
John was still fiddling with the boat the day before the launch, and indeed the morning of the launch.
"I probably didn't get to the water for about 30 minutes; I was still tinkering with things," he said. In deference to the good breeze that was blowing at the start, and which soon increased to the predicted 15 to 20 knots from the northeast, John chose to start with just the 60-foot sail set in the middle of the boat. He had no problem sliding his boat to the water, and soon cleared the first hurdle that catches some boats, a shallow bar 40 or 50 feet off the beach.
"I just sailed over the bar," John said. "The boat draws no more than two inches, probably a little bit less, even with a load in it."
Like most competitors leaving the beach, he had no inkling of the conditions that he would encounter in the middle of Tampa Bay - "There was no indication when I left that there was any problem at all" - as the strong northeasterly blew into the teeth of an incoming tide, building up sharp short seas that tossed the fleet of small boats and kayaks.
"There was a point in the start where I would have just as soon had a little less in square feet in the sail, but I was never frightened," John recalled. "I couldn't make up my mind whether I was going inside
(down the Intracoastal Waterway) or outside (into the Gulf of Mexico) and I decided to split the difference .
"When I got closer (to Anna Maria Island across the bay) I could see (going outside) was not a chance I wanted to take, so I took a left turn right at the bulkhead where the shallow water was. In fact, I sailed in shallow water back to the Intracoastal."
His split course had one other, um, interesting result. As he got most of the way across, John had to deal not only with the three to four foot following seas - "When the seas got really jumpy, they were coming from two different directions," hitting him from the side as well as stern.
"I didn't want to charge off those waves into a trough, so I slowed down from time to time. I really love that sail. I enjoyed that portion, it was exhilarating," John said. "I never had one of those scary moments. I always felt I was under control. I did hunker down and I needed to pay attention to what was going on there. That was pretty much what I was feeling. I never felt like I was about to lose it, although there were a couple of times the wave was over before I got into the rhythm. What bothered me is when the waves were coming from two directions; I had to watch what I was doing and keep from going too fast."
How fast was he going? That gets a chuckle from John. "I was never really thinking about that," he said, adding he didn't have a spare hand to turn the tracking feature on his Spot satellite tracker, which would have recorded his speed, and he hadn't yet turned on his GPS. (Here's an educated guess. As near as I can tell, John Wright got Thang off the beach a half an hour or so after John Bell and I got Bandaloop launched. When he caught up to us at Sarasota, we had been stopped for about a half an hour or so, so he probably mirrored our speed, which was better than seven knots across Tampa Bay.)
That the waves might start breaking on the shallows was a concern.
"I had gone to the shallow water and turned left and it was surprisingly calm. I was worried I was going to get into some breaking waves. In that case, I would have gone straight in and walked it over the bar, but it was calm when I got to shallow water."
Once across the shallows, "I just sailed down the channel," John said.
Once approaching the first bridge over the ICW, John noticed two police boats heading north toward Tampa Bay. John Bell and I, a bit to the south, had noticed them too. But unlike us, John Wright didn't turn on his marine radio, which was carrying traffic about what would become the rescue and pickup of 12 ECers in Tampa Bay.
"I did not have my radio on, I never do that," John said. consequently he missed the calls from distressed boaters and the notices from the Coast Guard, first advising ECers to seek the first safe harbor, then announcing the EC was cancelled, and finally affirming that the EC was canceled but relenting enough to allow that participants could go to the first checkpoint. "A while later, my wife called and said, 'You should get off the water if you're in the WaterTribe," and I said, What is Watertribe?' I said, 'Martha, there's no reason for me to stop, I'm having fun.'"
Which he was, as was everyone who made it across Tampa Bay and into the open gulf or to the ICW, as the winds moderated and the waterway or the coastline provided protection in the remaining offshore breezes. John sailed south and hit Sarasota Bay in company with Bill Fite in his Sea Pearl, although Bill drew ahead in the southern part of the bay. But John had plenty to watch.
"They've always got sailboats racing out there and they've always got some interesting looking boats," he said.
Shortly thereafter, he passed the island where John Bell and I were "pausing," and we relaunched and sailed with Thang more or less in company down the bays and channels between Sarasota and Venice. John's short rig allowed him easier passage under two of the three bridges on that stretch of the ICW and on the third, the Blackburn Point swing bridge (with about an eight foot clearance) he dropped his rig and pulled himself through hand over hand on the wooden abutment beams lining the channel and protecting the bridge posts.
"I didn't want to get in the way of anyone," he explained.
At Venice, we cut to the east to follow the ICW through the Venice Canal, choosing that route mostly because I had been sick all day and we were concerned going outside would get us to Stump Pass after dark and with a contrary current.
John chose the other course and went out into the Gulf at Venice. Good choice.
||Thang at our shared campsite on Friday, the day before the start of the 2015 EC.
||John on the launching beach with Thang. Not sure when this was taken, From the Shadow, it would be Friday afternoon. He eventually wound up behind John Bell's Bandaloop, so he must have moved it from here.
||John getting ready to launch around 7:30 a.m. John Bell and I were in front of him and had launched earlier. We were hitting the 3-4 foot steep waves in the middle of Tampa Bay; John would soon be there!
||John right after launch
||Thang after John got it to CP1; looks like the dock there.
||John on Thang at CP1.
||John at the camping area at CP1
||John with Thang at CP1 on Sunday, sorting things out after the EC had been cancelled.
"When I was approaching Venice, I noticed the tide was going out and I knew when I made the turn at the inlet, I was going to be against the tide (if he chose to stay inside) and I wouldn't have any favorable wind. I was going to be damned if I was going to row six or seven miles (through the Venice Canal where we wound up rowing about half the distance)," he said. "I went out the inlet and hung a left and said, 'Well, I can go out a ways and get a little better wind.' I chose to go fairly close in.
"I watched miles and miles of children and dogs. The Gulf had about a two-foot swell in it. It was so spread out, with a long interval, you couldn't hardly feel the boat going up and down. The wind is what I would say is perfect. Ninety percent of the time it was perfect. It got kind of light a few times, but if it had been any more I would have been uptight. I didn't look at the speed because I was enjoying myself so much."
He saw only one other boat, another EC sailboat crewed by a couple who went past. "All of a sudden I head a voice right behind me," John said. "They were really moving in that boat. It looked like a pretty good sized open skiff, but they knew what they were doing. I didn't see another boat before dark."
It was fully dark but before the nearly full moon rose when he reached Stump Pass, the subject of much pre-race concern and conjecture among EC competitors. In strong onshore winds, particularly from the northwest, there can be breaking waves all across this inlet, which no clear way in. But with the moderate offshore wind, that wasn't a problem. That left only the tide to worry about.
John made it without trouble into the mouth, "I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I knew I was in Stump, I could sense I was moving backward (with the outgoing tide) because there was hardly any wind and it was on the nose. I got to the north side (of the pass) and I said, 'Oh, well, the only way to get through here is walking.'"
So he began to feel his way along the shoreline, holding on to Thang.
"You couldn't see where you were stepping, the shoreline was steep and the water quickly got deep. I stepped in a hole, and when I stepped in there, the side caved in on my feet, so I could't pull them out quickly. So my feet were down a foot and a half in the sand. There was only a little surge from the surf."
Thang slipped slightly further away where "I could touch the boat, but I couldn't get a hold of anything. It was about two inches further than I could grip anything. It was really kind of interesting when it happened. I wasn't afraid for myself. I was standing there looking down on the situation and the irony was overpowering. It was distracting me. I might have bene able to get the boat if I hadn't been so distracted by the irony."
Instead, "the boat sails off and in my mind's eye I think or hope it's sailing to the other side of the channel, because that goes way further off into the gulf. In my mind's eye, I knew where it sent but in about 30 seconds, I couldn't see a thing. I got out of the hole and got on the bank and scratched my head. I know I can get to the other side, but I don't want to go across because of the (strong) outgoing tide."
John went up the channel about a hundred yards where there would be less current and thought about trying to wade across. "I'm considering what my options are and suddenly there's a boat in front of me, in the middle of the channel about right where I'm standing."
It was a pair of fellow ECers, Sharknado and Righteous Mother (Kent and Justin Morse) on a Hobie Tandem Island sailing kayak trimaran. However, their rudder had broken and they had rigged up makeshift steering that they were afraid would break if they ventured into shallow water. They were willing to take John to the first checkpoint, about a mile and a half away, but not across the inlet to retrieve his boat.
"I didn't want to stand on the bank in the total dark, so I decided to go with them, based on what I knew at that moment. I didn't want to be left out there all night long," John said. "But it probably wasn't 10 minutes later, some else came through (Stump). But I didn't know that at the time."
The couple could see Thang across the inlet, so John knew his conjecture about where the boat ended up was correct, at least for the moment.
John landed at the first checkpoint (well before John Bell and I made it at 10:30 pm) and began figuring how to get back to Thang. Here he attributes fatigue from the long day as clouding his thinking. The simplest thing, John said, would have been to borrow a kayak, paddle down to Thang and sail it back with the kayak in tow.
Instead, around midnight, he left sitting on a standup paddleboard towed by a kayak padded by Rafael Reyes, who was acting as shore crew for another pair of EC competitors, Savanah Dan and PaddleMaker (Dan Lockwood and David Wicks).
There was a spot of excitement on the trip out. John was sitting and watching ahead and chatting with Rafael about soccer when suddenly the surface exploded into a huge mound of water by the kayak. "I'm sitting there six to seven feet behind his boat and it drenches him, completely soaks him to the boat. It's a large, adult manatee. It came out of the channel and I think it must have got up on the bank of the channel. I kept watching him and I though it was going to throw him over but all of the water from that commotion just soaked him.
The rest was almost anti-climatic.
"We just went to the pass outside of the channel and pulled the kayak up on the bank. I took off down the shoreline and probably about 100 yards past the pass, the boat was sitting there, the sail still up. The swell had pushed up up on the bank a good ways and the waves were still running up the beach lapping under it. The leeboards were down and the rudder was down, but it didn't damage anything. Everything was the way I left it."
The wind was blocked by trees along the pass, so John waded Thang up the inlet. "Once I got to the channel side of that island, I took off and sailed right in. And then it was over."
Well, not quite. John adds: "I would like to thank all the many wonderful people that gave me dry clothes, encouragement and help."
Now the story is done. Except I'll expect to see John soon on some waterway passing my by. Again.