Wild Ride to Key West

A couple of years ago, when we left Dry Tortugas bound for Mexico, we found ourselves in company with another boat, S/V Jupiter’s Smile, who had left Dry Tortugas about the same time we did.  We maintained radio contact on the trip, and once we arrived in Isla Mujeres, we met Jay and Barb, the owners of Jupiter’s Smile.  We met up with them once in Roatan about a year ago, but hadn’t seen or heard from them otherwise.  Monday morning, March 8th, we

Underway

Underway

heard Jupiter’s Smile on the VHF.  They had just arrived in Isla Mujeres.  We hailed them and made plans to visit later that day.  That afternoon, Nancy and I went to the Soggy Peso and got some ceviche and guacamole to go and took it out to Jupiter’s Smile.  It was very nice to see Jay and Barb again and it just so happened that they were on their way to Key West.  Since we had both arrived in Isla Mujeres together a couple of years ago, it seemed serendipity that we leave Isla Mujeres together.  We looked at the weather forecasts and it seemed that the best window in quite a while would be coming up on Wednesday, so we made plans to set sail for Key West on Wednesday.  Tuesday morning Nancy and I went to town to once again clear out of Mexico with Immigration and the Port Captain, then paid our marina fees and prepared to go out on anchor.  While we were doing all of this, Jay had gotten some updated weather that indicated we should leave Tuesday instead of waiting for Wednesday.  We left the dock and motored in circles around the anchorage, preparing the boat for sea.  At about 11:45 we got underway, along with Jupiter’s Smile.  Sea Biscuit, another boat headed for Key West with Michael and Robin aboard, joined our little flotilla shortly after we had gotten underway.

It started out a pleasant enough passage.  The seas were just a little high from the last Norther that had blown through and from the forecast, we expected maybe 8 hours of 20 knot wind from the Northeast, which would then drop to about 15 knots and start clocking around to the East, then Southeast, and eventually going on to the Northwest in advance of the next front, by which time we would be on our final approach to Key West.  We had it all planned out and the plan was perfect.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature did not follow the plan.  The wind remained pretty much Northeast for the whole trip and except for a few brief hours of respite, remained in the 25 knot range and higher for most of the time.  One night we recorded gusts as high as 40 knots with a steady 30 to 35 knots.  Oh, well, a bad day of sailing is still better than a good day at the office.

It took us about 65 hours to make the passage.  Unfortunately, it was bumpy enough of a ride that Nancy took another fall.  Not as bad as the one on the way from Honduras, but she hurt her foot.  When it is more than just a little rough, or when the boat is heeled over very much, it is very hard for her to move around the boat and we’ve found it best that she spend most of the time in the quarter berth.  She can usually relieve me for a couple of hours each day so that I can get some good sleep, and I take 15 minute catnaps once or twice in the dead of the night.  That works for a couple of days, but I’m pretty worn out by then.  Otherwise, it was a pretty good trip.  We had current with us most of the way and usually made 6 knots or better, and several times the GPS showed us making 9 knots over the ground for an hour or more at a time.

After the first several hours, the three of us, Jupiter’s Smile, Sea Biscuit, and Stolen Child, were no longer in visual contact as we each followed our own instincts for finding the most favorable current and playing the balancing act

Patrick with Jay and Barb

Patrick, Jay and Barb in Key West

between speed and comfort.  By the second day, we weren’t even in VHF radio range and we had to keep in contact with the SSB radio, which is longer range than the VHF.  Late in the evening on our second day at sea, we were about 50 nautical miles North Northwest of the coast of Cuba.  We were having our 10:00 p.m. check-in on the SSB when we heard a very faint mayday on the radio.  It was a woman’s voice and her signal was very weak.  It seems she and her husband were also on their way to Florida from Isla Mujeres, and had anchored in a remote bay on the coast of Cuba so they could let their dog take a walk ashore and do his doggie business.  The husband had taken the dog in the dinghy at 6:30 p.m. and shortly after he, the dog and the dinghy had disappeared in the mangroves, she had heard shots.  It was now after 10:00 and he still wasn’t back and she was stranded on the boat and was afraid that whoever had shot him would come for her next.  Of the three of us in our little flotilla, Stolen Child was closest to her position, and Sea Biscuit was the northern-most boat.  Sea Biscuit changed course directly for Dry Tortugas, hoping to get in VHF range of the U.S. Coast Guard station there, while Stolen Child and Jupiter’s Smile changed course directly for her position.  Once we had changed course, we no longer were going with the current, and our speed was about 5 knots, so we estimated it would take 10 hours to reach her.  In the meantime, Jay on Jupiter’s Smile began trying to get assistance on various emergency SSB channels and I remained in radio contact with the stranded woman.  We continued in this manner until 02:00 on the 11th, when the woman’s husband came on the SSB.  Apparently he had not been shot, as she had feared, merely lost.  The bay where they anchored was a mangrove inlet, with no beach to land the dinghy and walk the dog, so he had to motor the dinghy through the maze of channels through the mangroves, looking for a place to land.  In the process he got lost and in the process of trying to find a

Sunset at Key West

Sunset in the anchorage at Key West

way out, ran out of gas in the dinghy.  Fortunately, he found a small fish camp and one of the Cuban fishermen towed him back to his boat.  The shots she had heard were just somebody hunting birds.  All is well that ends well, and we all resumed our previous courses.  The diversion actually helped us out because otherwise we would have arrived at Key West around midnight on the 11th or very early a.m. on the 12th and the anchorage at Key West can be so crowded I wouldn’t want to try it in the dark.  As it was, we still had to slow the boat down in order to arrive after sunrise.

After this trip, Nancy and I have decided that we will limit our sailing to overnight trips and for any longer passages that we need to make, we’ll find somebody to help me crew the boat and Nancy will fly and meet us at the destination.  She has enjoyed our day sails and really loves living on the boat, but blue water sailing is really too rough for her in the best of conditions and single-handing for more than a day or two is not very pleasant for me.

We will stay here in Key West for a few weeks until the weather warms up further North, and then head back to Mississippi, where we will visit with friends and family, then we plan to take the boat to Mobile, Alabama, where we will have it hauled out and do some work on her while we plan our next adventure.

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