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Sailtime Storys by Bill Amt #5

Twenty years after my first ICW Experience

Are there yet more lessons to be learned?

Fog is not fun!

A passage from Daytona Beach to St Petersburg FL

St Lucie Canal/Okeechobee/Caloosahatchee/Gulf Coast ICW

For a few years I kept my boat in Daytona Beach.  While Daytona Beach offers Bike Week, NASCAR, a great beach with hard bodies, and the World Series of Softball, for a sailor the place has a big limitation.  St Augustine and Ponce Inlets offer the closest access to the Atlantic Ocean and in either direction several bascule bridges and an hour or two of motoring must be addressed before an inlet is reached.  So for several years Threshold was more of a floating condominium than a sailboat, and I stayed on board a couple days a week.

Orlando is centered between Daytona and Tampa/St Petersburg and I had debated both options heavily with the decision to put my name on the St Petersburg City Marina waiting list hoping for a slip to open.

My mother always admonished me, “be careful about what you ask for – you may get it” and true to form one day I received the unexpected telephone call from the St Petersburg City Marina, “you have a slip next month if you want it.”   Without out question this marina is one of the most appealing locations along the east coast; similar to ones in downtown Baltimore or in Miami and Ft Lauderdale’

Located in the refurbished sections of downtown St Petersburg one can enjoy the ambiance of a beautiful city and yet have a great bay or harbor to day-sail with little restriction – direct access to Tampa Bay and unrestricted access to the Gulf of Mexico.  So Threshold had only a month to get from Daytona to St Petersburg otherwise no day sailing in Daytona.

One can very easily see there are several routes that can be chosen for such a passage.  Go to the Keys and then take a hard right turn or take the across Florida route and the Gulf ICW up to Tampa Bay.  I wanted to see Lake Okeechobee and I was not certain that my weather windows would allow enough time for me to travel off shore to Key West and then up to St Petersburg, Also I did have to work so if I traveled the ICW and the canal across Florida, I could always tie up in a local marina and return to Orlando for a few days, then return to pick up the next leg.

So the route was determined and in April of 2001 Threshold moved from Daytona to Titusville and ultimately arriving at Indian town on the St Lucie Canal.  Outside of the fact we had a strong northerly breeze that allowed us to sail downwind the entire stretch of the Indian River at five plus knots using the engine only to maneuver bridges.

The trip to Indiantown was uneventful with the exception my crew this time included my oldest daughter who had very profound recollections of Captain’s Bligh and Ahab adventures in Charleston Harbor twenty years earlier.   But for her this time she admitted that Captains Bligh and Ahab were not in charge of Threshold – and that did make her much happier.

And along the way we were able to repay the debt I owed to the amorous captain and his mate twenty years earlier off the beach of St John’s Island in Charleston South Carolina.

As we passed Titusville and headed down the Indian River we came up on a small power boat stranded in the channel tied to a day beacon.  The boat included a frantic dad, a crying mom and a couple of little children.  The engine would not start, it was getting dark and they were worried.  One of my crew members was a mechanic who had come along for the day. He had grown up on the Indian River and new every detail that needed to be known about channels spoils and thin spots in the water.  So we began to tow the stranded boat to a marina he knew, and he jumped into the powerless boat.  By the time we were within a mile of our destination, he had the stalled engine running; all ended with the little boat heading into port and Threshold continuing down the ICW.

I guess sooner or later “what goes around comes around”.

The spring weather ran warm and cool and the evening we arrived in Indiantown a fog began to set within an hour after we tied up to the transient dock.  The St Lucie canal is exactly that, relatively narrow and high banks define the shoreline.  There was no need for day beacons because you could not stray from the channel.  So with that in mind, early the next morning we cast off our lines and motored out of the marina and into the canal although the fog had not lifted and seeing the bow of the boat was difficult.   But I knew all would be ok.   After all what was the worst that could happen?  We run into a bank?

My crew at the time was a very sweet lady I had married in the early 1980’s so she had been with me for twenty years and knew my personally very well.  But even with such wifely understanding she would repeatedly question me saying “Is it safe out her with the heavy fog?  How can you see anything?  Would it not have been smart to stay a little longer in the marina and let the fog lift?”    Rest assured, I reassured her that no one else would be out her and what is the worst that can happen? We turn left instead of right and we bounce off the bank.

But somewhere around the third or fourth reassurance, she asked “do you hear that motor, what is that noise?’  The question did register in my mind and thankfully the fog broke just enough for me to see a big, black, undefined lump heading directly toward us – a commercial barge.  Who would have thought that a commercial barge would be in the St Lucie canal?  Or better yet, who in their right mind would have not stopped to read about the barge traffic on the St Lucie canal before entering the canal in a heavy fog?

There are now many volumes to the Lessons Learned Book – obviously I am a very prolific writer to have created such a thick book with so many chapters and anecdotes.

Once again the barge captain was way ahead of my game and made a slight starboard turn while I did the same. We cleared port to port with little room to spare.  But the rest of the trip and the rest of all my future trips will certainly remind me that the ICW can allow lull even the most experienced captain into a cavalier state of mind and a sense of entitlement and over confidence.

We then came to the infamous railroad bridge – and the lake at the time was high. So our 52 foot mast would not clear the bridge.  We had earlier called the local “boat tipper” and with a handful of barrels on our starboard deck, a halyard attached to the Boat Tippers work barge, Threshold developed a sixteen degree starboard heel. Once heeled the “boat tippers” captain shouted “hit it with full power and do not hesitate”, Threshold and the “boat tippers” barge simultaneously powered under the bridge, neither arriving on the other side any worse for wear.  We paid our $75 “tipping fee”, the crew emptied and removed the barrels, handed us two, aluminum foil wrapped bacon and egg breakfasts and disappeared into the fog.

A couple hundred yards later we entered the lock to Lake Okeechobee with the fog now so heavy we could not see the gates at the end of the lock.  The lock master closed the entrance gate, and a few minutes later the lake side gate opened exposing a monolithic wall of grey despite all of my assurances to my now concerned crew “By the time we clear the lock the fog will have lifted and we can enjoy a nice ride across the lake”.  The lock master did graciously offer to allow us to tie up the some pilings a few yards into the lake, he too suggesting we wait until the fog lifted before we crossed the lake.

But I now had confidence in the little monochromatic Garmin GPS, and the fact the lake was above normal depths, so my ego just could not accept the lock masters offer, and the little Perkins began to hum at 1800 rpm and Threshold ran on at 5 knots toward the little electronic dot displayed on the monochromatic Garmin screen.

At five knots a passage across the lake will take a few hours – five to seven depending upon your ability to spot day beacons. So we likely averaged three or four because if I felt lost or concerned I could not visually spot the marker shown on the Garmin screen I would cut the speed in half and navigate using the depth sounder.

Every twenty minutes I would deliberately make the pronouncement “the fog will lift shortly” – that is at least three times per hour for those not so mathematically inclined.  And every hour passed with increasing frustration that the fog had not lifted.  We could hear power boats pass by us and feel their wake but we could not see them.  The GPS worked great and we found every day beacon even though we could see the less than 100 feet away.

We entered the lake somewhere around 10 AM and the fog finally lifted at about 2:30 PM, just in enough time for us to see the rim of the lake and get a sense of the environment that I wanted to so badly see.  We locked down into the Caloosahatchee River around 5PM and tied up to the first marina in sight – it might have been the only one in Moorehaven at the time.

For some reason that escapes me, I seem to write new chapters in my Lessons Learned Book, only to then not practice what I preached in the old chapters.  Overconfidence, a misplaced sense of skill, a cavalier attitude, or just plain stupidity seems to consistently erase many of my lessons learned.  Traveling in fog regardless of the level and sophistication of electronics and the crews experience should never be taken lightly.  Likewise traveling at night along lanes that have commercial traffic should be avoided – again regardless of the electronic sophistication or ability to interpret the blotches, dots and pings.  GPS, Radar, AIS and VHF definitely are great tools.  But electronics do not replace common sense and do not compensate for the boater who lacks both electronics and common sense a very easy lesson to be overlooked or ignored.

The next day was idyllic traveling down the Caloosahatchee River through the sugar cane fields and large pastures of cattle.  Few navigation skills were necessary until arriving in Ft Meyers and the trip from a seamanship perspective was simple, but once again the scenery and serenity did more than offset the lack of nautical challenges.  One note – sugar cane fields are set afire after the cane is harvested and by the time we arrived in Ft Meyers Threshold was covered with ashes.

We left the boat in a Ft Meyers marina and two weeks later Threshold was setting in her new slip at the St Petersburg marina. Her crew spent many evening watching the sun set through the St Petersburg skyline and many weekends day sailing Tampa Bay.   The passage up the Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway was little different than that of the ICW south of St. Lucie, narrow channels, some congestion and many beautiful homes.  No particular events stand out in my mind outside of the continuum of the previous 1,200 miles or so of this endearing watery highway

A couple of years later someone walked up to Threshold’s slip made an unsolicited offer to buy her at a price that was hard to resist, and to this day I miss Threshold much more than I miss my ex wife.  But new chapters begin where old ones quit and there remain many more lessons to be learned.

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