Hark Upon the Gale

Author’s Note: All pics were taken pre-or-post gale, it was a freakin gale ok? Not like we were taking photos. Also, so you don’t get the wrong idea, we were (semi) anchored during the gale (details within), not like we were about to go sailing around in that stuff.

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Alma Mater Hail!

This sailing racket can be pretty hard. It may seem like we blithely flit from anchorage to anchorage, watering hole to watering hole, sharing adventures with other like-minded piratical maniacs, but the truth is that sometimes this sailing racket can really suck.

Our plan was to try and make it down to Key West in time to meet my family for a week’s visit. Failing that, we figured we could leave the boat at Boot Key Harbor in Marathon. We left Tavernier early in light and shifty winds, motored through the sounds of the upper Keys, and had some beautiful sailing just outside the Channel Five bridge, southwest of Islamorada. We anchored in Long Key Bight, which is protected from the North-West-South, in anticipation of the cold front forecast to bring strong winds clocking from SW to N the following day. Long Key Bight isn’t a particularly snug anchorage, but there weren’t many options with protection from all the right quadrants. Plus, we have (extremely) oversized ground-tackle, so we weren’t too worried.

The winds began to increase around midnight that evening, and by 2:30AM had increased to the point where sleep was increasingly unlikely. At 4AM the winds increased again, and we were roused by the sound of “Bug” (our dinghy) slamming against the side of “Firefly.” I leapt on deck to discover us beam-on to the wind, suggesting strongly that our anchor was dragging. I ran forward to check the rode, usually you can feel the anchor skitter across the bottom if it’s not set, but the rode was rock solid, albeit streaming aft at a weird angle. Then I saw a lobster buoy float by at about 1 kt, there was no doubt, we were dragging. If we didn’t act fast, the boat would be on a shoal, mud if we were lucky, coral if we weren’t. I would have estimated the wind at a steady 30 kts at this point, radio said later it was gusting to 40. It was pitch black, very rough, very loud, and very, very scary. Ryan came up on deck, we got the motor started, tried to get the nose around into the wind and haul in the anchor. (In our underwear, of course) We couldn’t quite get her around, so I hauled the anchor up the side of the boat. I remember thinking that it was surprisingly easy to pull the anchor and chain in. 5 or 6 days later I’m still sore though, so I think adrenaline had something to do with it. At any rate we were able to get the anchor aboard, use the gps to find a safe spot to re-anchor, and get the anchor set again. This time I put out all 100 feet of our chain plus another 20 feet of nylon rode, and she held. We spent the next 36 hours on anchor watch, and on pins and needles until the gale blew itself out. I’m not sure what was worse, the craziness at 4AM or spending the next day and a half stressing about the anchor holding. You often hear about the howling of wind in the rigging, and it’s no exaggeration. There was no escape from the noise, and the pitch of the wind varied minutely with its strength. The effect is like some psychotic improvisation, with gusty peaks an valleys, motifs and threatening phrases as the boat swung on her rode. Coupled with the sharp slap of waves against the hull and the hissing of whitecaps it was pretty intense. I can’t imagine a storm at sea.

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“Are we dragging again?!” “Just a wind-shift” “Are you sure?!?” “No” “Let’s check the ducky” (gps)

The wind was blowing 20 kts 2 days later, forecast to decrease to 15 kts, but they were still calling for 5-7 ft seas in Hawk Channel (the only way to get to Marathon/Boot Key Harbor), so we decided to slog back the inside of the Keys to Tavernier. The first hour was “salty,” but we hoisted our double-reefed main, heeled the boat just a bit, she steadied out, accelerated, and all of a sudden we were having fun again.

What follows is a nautical-nerd discussion of anchoring technique, feel free to skip to the part with the pictures if that’s not your thing.

In hindsight I think I didn’t have enough scope out for the amount of wind/chop we had, coupled with less-than-ideal holding. (Scope is the ratio of how much chain/line you have out to the depth of the water, holding is how good or bad the bottom is for setting an anchor) We have regularly anchored in 25 kts of wind on relatively short scope, 5:1, due to our oversize anchor and chain-rode. It’s super useful in tight anchorages to sneak into spots the big boys and girls can’t fit. What I neglected to consider is that the force exerted by the wind on a surface varies by the square of the velocity…double the windspeed and the force increases by a factor of four. Which is terrifying if you really think about it. Anyways, not a situation in which to skimp on the scope. Secondly, the holding was somewhat marginal, which I didn’t realize until I hauled the anchor aboard and saw in the light of my headlamp a medicine ball-sized clump of grassy-mud. I think the anchor sawed a piece out of the bottom wholesale.

Now that we’ve recovered, we’re looking forward to spending some time with my family and exploring the islands of Florida Bay from our current base of Boater’s Mangrove Marina in Tavernier. Here are some highlights from our trip south from Ft. Lauderdale.

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Morning fog, Florida ICW

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It took me 2.5 months and 1200 miles, but I finally installed the tiller-pilot. Pretty awesome.

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Sailing on Biscayne Bay

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Stiltsville, USA

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No Name Harbor, Key Biscayne

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Boca Chita! Not to be confused with Boca Chica! Or is it Boca Chica! Not to be confused with Boca Chita!? I don’t remember.

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Boca Chita! (def Boca Chita), beautiful home of 10 Trillion Mosquitos.

 Perhaps the most compelling reason for us to make Tavernier our base for a little while is the presence of J & K the crew of “Chickadee,” whom we originally met in Cocoa, FL. These guys are awesome, J works on a head boat here and the whole gang went a-feeshin.

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Ryan was by far the most successful fish-killer. We all went back to the Tiki Hut, made fish tacos, and FEASTED

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Wise words, thanks Tiki Hut!

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Double reefed, blue skies, and making for safe harbor.

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Hark! the students’ voices swelling
Strong and true and clear.
Alma Mater’s love they’re telling,
Ringing far and near.

William & Mary loved of old
Hark upon the gale,
Hear the thunder of our chorus
Alma Mater – Hail.

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8 thoughts on “Hark Upon the Gale

  1. We LOVE YOU and can’t wait to see you!! If this weather in the northeast affects our plans – we will be p…. and we LOVE snow!

  2. Nice post, you definitely learned something, and so did I (even if it was a reminder), when in doubt let it out! The thing about scope though is TOO much and you can hit other boats, shoals, etc. It truly is an art. Beautiful that your life hinges on a string, but terrifying! Fair winds!

  3. Well done, Firefly! Nothing like a Master’s Seminar in Anchor Drag Response in the middle of the night. Your account of the night is excellent, and a great lesson to all of us cruisers. Love the video, too! Keep it coming! Have fun!

  4. Hi Guys! I stumbled across your blog the other day and read it through start to finish in one go. Great job on the restoration, very inspiring! I’ve just started restoring an old S&S 30 myself and am blogging about it here: http://www.ss30.konnichiwa-japan.com. Hopefully my project will turn out as nice as yours!

    One minor quibble though; when are you guys gonna get around to doing all your woodwork? Every time I see a shot of the companionway or handrails I think: “That needs some teak oil”. 😉

    • Thanks for checking out the blog Evan, glad you enjoyed it! As for the woodwork, the cabin top handrails have been on the list for a while, and as for the rest I’d rather be sailing than varnishing! Good luck with your refit.

  5. Pingback: West of Here | The Bonnie Boat

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