Storm rising: An experience in the great outdoors
The rumble of thunder echoing over the still air and glassy water was an ominous sign. Nancy and I were still 25 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, headed toward Boca Grande.
The day before, we just felt the need to get away from it all and decided to head out to the gulf. We had no plan, except to sail out till about 1 a.m. and then come about and sail back. Sailing, after all, is a journey and experience unto itself.
Southwestern swells were not a good sign. This indicated that the low-pressure system that was in the Caribbean was now past Cuba and the Yucatan peninsula, and had moved into the gulf. The swells were generated hundreds of miles away, but we were comforted in recognizing the indicators of a developing tropical storm and we still had time to make it to safe harbor — we hoped.
Heavy weather sailing was my forte, not that I liked it. Spending much time in the 1970s sailing along Oregon and Washington states, I was used to heavy swells and high winds.
Those of you who race sailboats may have heard of the Swiftsure Race. Originating in Victoria British Columbia, the race heads west through the Straits of Juan de Fuca, out to the Swiftsure banks between Washington State and Canada. Then it returns to the finish line at Victoria. The host hotel is the world famous Empress Hotel. This beautifully historic Victorian-designed icon was established in the early 1900s. The Empress Hotel has hosted kings and queens and other royalty, as well as a multitude of highranking diplomatic figures.
During race week, most of the sailors are welcomed to the Empress Hotel and its marina. Not unlike Jimmy Buffet’s song, “Gypsies in the Palace,” we are given the royal treatment.
The Pacific Northwest is known for its fickle weather. When the sun is out and the winds are moderate, it is the greatest place to sail. This happens about 20 percent of the time. The other 80 percent consists of thick fog, rain, high winds or no wind at all.
This day in the gulf, the wind was thick with moisture as the dawn broke ahead of us. The bright orange and red hues spread across the horizon, with shades of more gray and than black off behind us to the southwest. This brought to mind the old adage of “Red sky at night, sailors delight — Red in morning, sailors take warning.”
The mainsail and jib slapped back and forth as our boat rolled slowly from one side to the other. A heavy swell passed beneath our keel in the flat, oily-looking water.
We decided to douse the jib, haul in the main and use the iron genny (the engine). Our leisurely overnight sail was at once put on a strict schedule to get us to safe harbor before the heavy weather hit.
We motor-sailed along at about 6.5 knots, the autopilot holding our course. This equates to about 3 ½ hours of travel time to the entrance of Charlotte Harbor.
The marine radio broadcasting the weather in an emotionless computer generated voice listed the latitude, longitude and direction of the newly formed tropical storm.
The first hour made for comfortable cruising, but some of the outflow storms and squall lines were overtaking us.
The good news was the wind was behind us, putting us on a broad reach, starboard tack.
Nancy watched the helm as I went on deck, snapping into my safety harness, forward to the mast and put a double reef in the main sail. This shortened sail would make handling the boat easier in gusty winds.
I looked back at Nancy and saw it in the distance, moving toward us, a huge waterspout.
To be continued.
Fair winds and calm seas. ¦
— Capt. Dennis Kirk has been traveling the Peace River since 1979. His life adventures are written from various chapters in his three decades of experience in Southwest Florida. He is part owner of the Nav- A- Gator, a riverfront restaurant and marina in Lake Suzy, just off Kings Highway. For more information, call 627- 3474.