First passage as captain


To the editor: In May I was in New Orleans frantically finishing a two-year refit of my 1975 Cape Dory 28. Then, just a few months later, I had put 2,000 miles under the keel on a passage north to Maine. The first part of the trip, from New Orleans to Southern Florida, my first as owner and captain, helped answered a question that has nagged me ever since I began work on a dilapidated old boat: Yes, I really do want to go sailing!

At the start of this trip my experience was rich in memories of growing up on a sailboat but lean in practical knowledge. A few instinctive skills came back to me quickly: the feel for walking on a ship as it rolls at sea, for example. The farther we went the more I realized how many skills I had lost or never really learned. It was a bit like revisiting a neglected language; it is not until you’re in the thick of it that you realize how little you remember, but every small thing that comes back is a joy.

 We left New Orleans with a brisk forecast, planning a straight shot offshore to Destin, Fla. It was an easy, pleasant sail to the Gulf Coast through Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne, but as we turned south the breeze picked up considerably.

Now over-canvassed and beating to windward, we were soon soaked with spray and pounding very uncomfortably. Predictable, sure, but I had been lulled by the protection of the lakes and hadn’t thought to reduce sail before turning into the open Gulf. So I paid the price on the pitching foredeck, bagging up our genoa and hanking on a smaller working jib. By the time we had our little boat under control again I was sopping wet and decidedly queasy, my ego rather deflated by this lack of foresight. Some captain I was turning out to be.

Paul Calder

Anchored in the Everglades.

Well, no time to sulk. We were rapidly approaching our last shoals before the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I ducked below to navigate (and try to regain my composure). Twice, I had to drop my protractor and run retching to the rail, but I did manage to plot a clear path through the shoals, and felt much better for it. It was a short-lived satisfaction. Luke, at the helm, was already on course, following a clearly-marked channel that I had failed to see on the chart!

Soon enough we turned east into the open Gulf and finally had a pleasant surprise. As we trimmed the sails on a broad reach, everything changed. I knew we would be more comfortable on a reach, but I had quite forgotten how absolute that shift can be. Close-hauled we were thrashing along, fighting to gain ground against the force of the sea. Then a shift of a few compass points and all fighting stops. The crash of waves becomes that exquisite noise of water swirling past at hull speed, the boat stops groaning and creaking, the sails cease their nervous shaking and start to hum. It’s bliss.

Propelled by this perfect wind, we made our first landfall in no time at all.

Destin, Fla., has a pleasant anchorage and a nice beach, but it is overrun with jet-ski docks and garish restaurants. Our next destination was Choctawhatchee Bay, where we spent a couple days. This inlet, easily accessible through Destin, is one of many semi-protected sections of the Gulf Coast ICW which make for unusually pleasant sailing. I would have liked to explore it further, but we were in a hurry and soon enough headed for open water again. Our next leg was the ‘big’ jump, 235 nm across the panhandle to Tarpon Springs. A forecast for moderately strong winds from the northwest did not disappoint. By the second day we were running downwind under jib alone, often exceeding our hull speed as we raced down wave faces.

A boat is filled with noises. Once catalogued, they become like old friends, but any new sound is usually an alarm bell. This one was coming from the mast and was clearly rigging related. I have a rather unusual fiber rig, tensioned via lashings through old-fashioned looking deadeyes. Now, the lashings had loosened up leaving the top of the mast flopping about in a passable imitation of our tuna.

Paul Calder

Sailing downwind in the Gulf of Mexico.

Not wanting to go on deck in the lively conditions, I lay in bed for a few minutes trying to estimate the danger and convince myself it could wait until morning. Then I came to my senses and put on my harness. On deck I inched out to the lee side to tighten and retie all the shroud lashings. After a tack I did the same on the opposite set. Working only to leeward allows me to pull the shrouds tight by hand but it’s a miserable job in heavy weather. I was braced against the toerail, leaning over the side towards a churning sea and fiddling with knots in a small, slick line. Occasional large waves came over the rail and soaked me, trying to jerk the lashings out of my hands. It was not a long process but it was exhausting, and a bit scary.

The next evening the wind eased and morning found us motor-sailing up the Anclote River to Tarpon Springs. The river that day was shimmering with an awful radiance. Just the night before, a fishing boat had burned to the gunnels, leaking diesel for miles on the falling tide.

Tarpon Springs was a lovely contrast to this tragic sight. It is clean and bright, ostensibly “frozen in time,” like a dozen other sleepy American fishing towns. After a short stay we weighed anchor for another jump south.

A feckless east wind brought us eventually to Cayo Costa, one of Florida’s many well-maintained state parks. Only accessible by boat or ferry, Cayo Costa is not crowded, at least not by Florida standards. We came in through Boca Grande Pass to a protected anchorage on the east side of the island and went ashore to explore.

From Cayo Costa’s pristine nature trails we made a hop to the truly wild Florida Everglades. The Shark River and Little Shark River are part of the confluence of waterways that cuts Cape Sable off from the mainland. A well-marked channel leads into Little Shark River, which is an excellent and little-used entrance into Everglades National Park. This channel carries plenty of depth, we found between 10 and 20 feet at low water.

Eventually we left the solitude of the Everglades behind for the bustle of the Florida Keys. Our final destination on the Gulf Coast was Marathon’s crowded Boot Key Harbor. At the fuel dock we stopped to replenish the diesel we had burned between New Orleans and the Keys (only $1.74 worth, it turned out!).

We had made it to the turning point. From here we would start making our way north and face new challenges. After the experience of our first few days, though, I made the turn with increased confidence, eager for the sailing ahead.

—Paul Calder is a freelance writer and son of Ocean Navigator contributing editor Nigel Calder.

By Ocean Navigator