Storms on Dry Tortuga

Published: April 1995  Mid-Gulf Sailing
© 2013 Troy Gilbert
By Alicia Phillips

Re-printed with permission – Mid-Gulf Sailing.

So this is why we pour money into that hole in the ocean called a boat: The bow slicing through the aqua water steadily Dry-Tortugasat six knots. Blue skies with a few white puffy cumulus clouds to the east. Sanibel Island slowly fading away to the north.

This is why we prepare: 150% genoa and mainsail set, telltales streaming aft, a Force 3 west wind pushing us along to our ultimate destination—the Fort Jefferson Monument on Garden Key in the cluster of small islands known as the Dry Tortugas. It is 1740 and I have just been witness to another awe inspiring sunset. The fiery gold and orange streaks across the western horizon obviously impress me more than my dozing companion Randy. I guess he’s pooped after reeling in the 300 yards of fishing line that a tuna peeled off the reel. We got him to the surface after five minutes of bedlam.

“Reel in the other line! Stop the boat! Pull in the taffrail knot meter! Reverse! Here! Grab the rod!”

Up and down the sidedeck, around the standing rigging, through the bimini supports. Ah! The graceful art of sailboat fishing. Finally at the transom we pull him to the surface. What beautiful iridescent markings on his shiny wet body. I can smell him on the grill already. Suddenly the line went slack and the tuna shot to the depths from whence he came. We couldn’t believe it! After all that! We stared dumbly at the two hooks and wire leader dangling on the end of the rod. Our rigged ballyhoo was gone and so was the mouth-watering tuna that had left just a ripple on the surface.

Now what’s this stout line that seems to be trailing beneath the boat? Could it be we’ve fouled the prop with a crab trap line? But of course! Randy prepares to go in the 74 degree water. He dons his wetsuit, and grumbling the entire time about sharks and other creatures of the deep, he pulls his mask, snorkel and fins out of the port cockpit locker. Another glance over the stern and lo and behold, the line has miraculously freed itself. We now go through the contortions of extricating Randy from my wetsuit which is a few sizes too small for him. Once this is accomplished Randy’s voice returns to its usual baritone so we adjust our course and sail onward. I finally begin to reel in the other fishing line when I notice that I’m not making a lot of progress and the rod is bending dangerously in half.

“Randy?” I call apprehensively. “Either I’m trying to raise the bottom of the Gulf or this line is wrapped around the propeller.”

“You’re kidding! What next?” Randy cried in disbelief.

“Don’t ask questions like that or you’ll tempt Murphy,” I replied, referring to the namesake of the law that if something can go wrong it will. We put the gear lever in the reverse position and were able to free 50 yards of snarled monofilament line. Once again we pressed on.

18:45—The full moon begins to rise. Wispy cirrus clouds float by it, giving the moon an eerie unearthly appearance. Throughout the night the swells roll towards Windborne. She seems to raise her stern to give them way. They pass beneath her, she rolls and then settles down once more. This game continues for hours.

Is this the perfect sail we all strive for? We’ve sailed without having to touch the sails except for the few course adjustments after the “incidents.” Not motor sailed which seems to be the norm if we’re to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time due to our work schedule. We both look forward to the day when we have no real timetable except for nature’s, when we can leave the engine off even if we’re only sailing at 2-3 knots.

Speaking of which, the inevitable happens. The wind dies. The constant flap-slap-bang of the sails with every roll of the boat, (of which there are many) becomes unbearable. To prevent premature chafe of the headsail on the spreaders and unnecessary stress on the forestay, we drop the 150% genoa. The mainsail quickly follows and the engine is engaged. We all have a love-hate relationship with our engines. Love ’em when the wind dies, but hate ‘em cause they’re noisy and stinky.

Randy stumbles below to his berth for his three hours of sleep. I got to listen to the flap-slap-bang on my off watch, he gets to listen to the engine. He sleeps like the dead however so that should not be a problem for him.

I settle in for my watch. The moon cuts a silvery path across the inky water toward Windborne. The stars are a million points of light. I hand steer not only to give the autopilot a break, but to feel at one with Windborne and the sea. There’s something that touches the soul when you’re steering at night and you watch the sea fold in to cover your wake. The only trace that you were ever there. It’s sobering to realize that unlike land, you cannot leave on the sea the ugly mark of man in the form of high-rise condos and super¬highways. Land is at the mercy of man in that respect. On the sea you are at nature’s mercy.

12-18-94, 07:10—Beautiful sunrise. Still sailing a rhumb line course of 205 degrees. Lost another ballyhoo, but at 1020 caught an 18-pound King mackerel. Wore me out to reel him into the boat. We now have dinner for at least a couple of nights. If there are any other boats in the Tortugas, maybe we’ll have a fish fry. So far we’ve seen one freighter and a few shrimp boats. Jellyfish and seaweed float by while landbirds circle overhead.

12:30 We’re now in 10 feet of water and we can see the bottom quite clearly in this crystal water. Randy, as usual, is taking a nap on deck so I wake him so he can see the Loggerhead Key light which is visible in the distance off our starboard bow. As you lie in the cockpit, it’s funny how your whole world dips and sways, how the horizon rises and falls with each rolling swell.

We’ve now rounded Fast Key. A large sandbar northeast of the fort is now looming off our port bow.

12:45 We made it! Exactly 27 hours after leaving Cape Corals’ Tarpon Point Marina. We’re anchored southeast of Garden Key. Even though this is our second trip here (the first being in Oct. 93), the fort is still impressive when viewed from the deck of a small sailboat. There are only two other sailboats in the anchorage. The last time we were here, there were at least a dozen boats. Being this close to Christmas I guess everyone is at home up north.

That afternoon we took a walk around the fort, signed the visitors’ book and spoke to a ranger. It’s a good thing we walked when we did, because for the next three days our wind meter clocked Force 6 winds which tore through the anchorage with gusts up to Force 8. Heavy downpours and anchor watch kept us on board. In those conditions we became very proficient at backgammon and I learned to play poker. Meals became the highlight of the day.

On Tuesday night, the skies cleared long enough to see stars twinkling, but while asleep the fury started anew. We awoke to angry little two-foot waves marching through the anchorage. Weather reports called for 30-40 knot winds and 14 foot seas outside the reef. We set our 35-pound CQR as a second anchor and let out more scope on our 25-pound Danforth. We’re in seven feet of water and now have 110 feet of scope out. The other boats soon followed suit.

The rolling is incessant, and the howling of the wind through the rigging never ending, but we’re holding fine. Tantalizing patches of blue sky and a watery sun were snuffed out by sinister grey-black clouds. The waves crashing against the seawall of the fort are incredible. There is a solid line of white water breaking on the reefs 350 yards astern. The shrieking wind sounds like the tortured souls of Hell. Will this ever end?

It’s very difficult to hear the weather reports now because they are really breaking up. We hear the words interspersed with squelch. “Advisory in effect..gale warnings… 14 foot seas…low pressure system.. .high….” Try to piece together some comfort from those words!

When the gates of heaven open like this, it’s very easy to find your leaks. I can see what the next project will be once we’re back at the marina. We’ve only had one casualty. Our chart kit got soaked. We’re trying to dry it out—a difficult task in this humidity.

On Wednesday morning the angry whitecapped waves and tempestuous winds were a sight to behold. It remained this way so we took a short nap and awoke to blue skies and a smiling sun. The wind had decreased to a Force 3, so we jumped at the opportunity to get off the boat. We donned our foul weather pants over shorts and dinghied to the fort. We walked along the outside and marveled at the different ecosystems here in the Tortugas. Even though more of the fort has crumbled since we were last here, we feel honored to be able to view this magnificent piece of history and can only imagine the hard work it took to build this by hand, brick by brick.

The sunshine lasted about 3 hours and the ominous gray clouds once again rolled in from the west. We had a short half hour downpour and the temperature dropped again to about 70 degrees F. We are both scheduled to be at work on Saturday. We need to leave tomorrow if we’re to make it. Hopefully things will calm down by then. In the warm glow of the oil lamps, it doesn’t sound like it will from down here in the shuddering cabin. The wires inside the mast gently tap with each roll. The ranger we spoke to on Monday told us that a few days after we left in ’93, the storm that caught us in Key West with 50 knot winds clocked 90 knots with higher gusts that caused them to lose wind instruments. He said that out of the fifteen boats at anchor, only about four remained in the water. The rest were blown onto the beach. A couple of fishing boats dragged their anchors early this morning.

We had hoped to snorkel off the reefs of Loggerhead at the site of a shipwreck. Guess we’ll have to wait till the next trip. Gives us an excuse for another trip to our favorite national monument.
We ate some more mackerel for dinner and Randy rigged a tarp over the v-berth hatch. This will allow for circulating air, but no more Chinese water torture through the night due to the leaking. Another sailboat and a few fishing boats have pulled in. I’m sure they’re happy to be at anchor tonight.

20:30—A quick peek out the companionway and I see stars and some patchy clouds to the southeast. The rocking of the boat and the whistling of the wind continues. We’re off to bed. We’ll see what tomorrow brings. Won’t get too excited about the clearing skies; after all, we had blue skies and sunshine today.

12-22 Thursday, 06:55 —Awoke to blue skies with patchy clouds all around the horizon. NOAA reports call for winds NW 15-20 knots and seas 4-6 feet outside the reef. We’ll prepare the boat for the passage home and see how accurate they are.

11:30—What gorgeous sailing. Winds NW 10-15 knots and a long rolling sea about 5 feet, a little rough. We have the 110% and main set. Average speed 5 knots. Hard to believe it could ever look this beautiful again.

22:30—Earlier I had ducked below to quickly don my foul weather gear. I had noticed a fast moving squall line rushing toward us from the north. I’m glad l did. It’s been raining a cold, hard rain for approximately 45 minutes now. The seas have become a lot rougher. The masts cuts an ever widening arc in the sky in response to the increased rolling of Windborne.

As the squall dies down, I notice the phosphorescence. The luminescent plankton lights Windborne’s frothy wake and I watch the trail with wonder.

My watch seems to last forever. When midnight finally does arrive, I go below with relish. I am very cold and in desperate need of the head. Donning and shedding foul weather gear is always a time consuming chore and it’s no different this time, especially with Mother Nature screaming my name so loudly. The pitching and the rolling as felt below is horrendous! Windborne rolls from side to side as a wave slides beneath her, then she slams headfirst into an oncoming wave. The sound is heartrending. There’s a loud crack as Windborne punches into the wave and shudders through her entire length. She seems to pause as if in surprise at the audacity of the wave to strike her so. She then shakes it off and continues on her way.

This goes on and I try to catch a few hours of sleep. What a futile attempt. I am tossed about and bounced in the berth. Sleep is impossible even though I am so tired. We had left the v-berth hatch open about 3 inches under the inverted dinghy lashed on deck. Just as I was thinking about closing it a wave broke over the foredeck and water came pouring through the hatch. Needless to say, the v-berth, the head and the floor of both were now soaked.

“Great. What next?” I asked Murphy out loud. Somehow clothes had managed to jump out of the hammocks strung alongside the v-berth wall. They were now a sodden rumpled mess. The cabin looked as if it had been put through a food processor. Every book on the shelves had leaped over the fiddles to join cassettes, blankets and Tupperware containers on the cabin sole.

Just then, Randy slid the companion-way hatch open and peered down. He said he needed me to come up because the storm jib was working itself loose on the foredeck. He said we’d lose it overboard if he didn’ t go forward to relash it now. The thought of him going to that pitching foredeck to save the sail filled me with dread. But he was determined. So, once again I climbed into my foulies and went above to the cockpit. Randy crawled along the sidedeck, his umbilical cord harness snapped to the jacklines. We retied the jib and returned to the relative womb-like safety of the cockpit. He had been drenched countless times by waves and had struck his head on the bow pulpit rail. He was wet but okay.

I had been too worried about Randy to really take note of the state of the seas before. But now as I looked around me I was awed. The waves were monstrous! We were surrounded by liquid mountains. The heaving walls of water topped with tumbling snow white crests, marched by in a never ending procession. By noon the next day, the “baby” ten footers weren’t impressive anymore. We were surfing down the faces of what seemed to be at least 16 footers, then sliding down the back of another and wallowing in the trough.

We were making very slow progress. We estimated it would be about 17 hours before we made landfall at Marco Island.

Our plan was to enter Capri Pass and tie up at a marina so we could rest. This motion was very tiresome. It would be noon the next day before we set our feet on dry land.

Before that was possible, the engine quit twice and I cracked a rib when I was thrown across the cabin and smashed into the chart table. We blew out the mainsail, lost a jib sheet, hopelessly wrapped the jib halyard around the forestay and spent the night anchored in the surf line approximately 200 yards off the Marco Beach. We were in about 5 feet of water; we draw 41/2 feet. We changed the fuel filter which was black with sediment kicked up in the tank from the motion of the boat.

We bled the fuel line and started the engine only to have it die a couple minutes later. We were down to l/8th of a tank. We had used all our extra fuel fighting our way back home. We called a local towing company, but because of the rough seas they said they could not attempt to pass us 5 gallons of fuel until the next morning. We had no choice. My lips were starting to blister from siphoning diesel from the tank to fill the Racor filter.

The pounding that night in the surf line was the worst of the trip. The next morning, after being the subject of a battle between two towing companies, we hoisted anchor and motored into Capri Pass. We were amazed at how far we had drifted the previous evening in our attempts to hoist sail after the engine quit. It was scary to see how close we had come to grounding on the large sandbar now visible off our starboard beam. The towboat operator told us that the Coast Guard had been trying to contact us on the radio while we slept fitfully. When we called them they told us they had planned on sending up a chopper to drop us a hand-held VHF because they thought our radio was inoperable. We explained that we had not slept in about 40 hours with the exception of dozing for a few minutes here and there. We managed about four hours off Marco, being jolted awake by every breaking wave. They said they had been keeping track of six or so boats throughout the storm and had them-selves encountered 10 foot waves about 20 miles offshore. We had it a little worse being approximately 50 miles offshore.

Once we tied up at the marina and went to eat breakfast in town, we noticed that walking on a steady surface was a little difficult. We must have seemed drunk to passersby as we lurched down the sidewalk. We fueled up after breakfast and decided to take the inside route behind Keewaydin Island to delay our trip to Cape Coral as long as possible. We dreaded going back out into the Gulf. It was such a pleasure to motor on flat water. It was cold, but we weren’t pounding and we needed the rest from that. We exited Gordon Pass at 1400 on Christmas Eve. Twenty-nine miles and nine hours later we motored into our slip at Tarpon Point and tied our dock line.

Sixty-six hours after we hoisted our anchor at Garden key and now we were finally home! We are emotionally and physically drained. The boat is trashed, the diesel fumes are overpowering, and it’s cold. But we don t care. We crawl into the v-berth and sleep the sleep of the dead.

We’ve learned a lot from this trip. We hope never to be caught out in weather like that again. Fatigue and a schedule are probably the shorthanded crew’s biggest enemies. We thought our storm in the Gulf Stream last summer on our way to the Bahamas was bad. It was, but it only lasted a couple of hours and the seas died down shortly thereafter. These just got bigger. We’re glad we didn’t do any significant damage to the boat. Weather like that definitely builds character, and we certainly have renewed faith in Windborne now. She withstood a lot more beating than we could. And because of this experience, when we cross the Atlantic next year for our European cruise, we’ll be a lot saltier.

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