Planning an Extended Cruise

Plan.PLAN. PLAN. (1)Our good friend, Dave Hope, is the author of a fantastic book titled Summer Heat. The book talks about his life as a sailor and a Chesterfield County Police Officer, as well as recounts his experience of being caught in a storm aboard his boat “Summer Heat”.

In this article, Dave discusses the necessity of planning. Planning and Sailing always go hand in hand and you can never over-plan a voyage. Many “unplanned” things can happen on an extended cruise, and it is always better to be prepared for many possible events than none at all.

As obvious as it sounds, planning for any trip, whether a day trip, a trip across the bay, a coastal cruise, or an ocean voyage, requires planning to be successful.  Just last week, actually March 31, 2014, S/V Southern Heat began her long journey home to Colington Harbour on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Our last scheduled day at the Vinoy Resort and Marina, St. Petersburg, FL., was to be April 1, 2014.

I began watching the weather approximately one week earlier, to get into the rhythm of studying the weather once again. I use a number of sources such as Passage Weather, Long Range Weather Planning, Chris Parker’s weather routing service, and local TV. They all provide a little different slant on the upcoming weather, but, I place most of my confidence in Chris Parker as he is a professional weather router for sailors all over the U.S. east coast, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean Sea. Further, he is a sailor himself who lives in FL. and understands the nuances of coastal and oceanic weather systems.

The entire week was looking good for departing St. Pete and heading south toward Cape Sable and Key West. Why wait until April 1?  March 31 had favorable wind, light though it was, so let’s get started. Having said that, was Southern Heat ready to go? What about the crew, were they ready?

Earlier, Camilla had rented a car and on March 30 we drove to the down town Publix grocery store to replenish ship’s stores. We believe in eating good wholesome meals when underway, even in the ocean. We often use pre-packed beef or pork meals that can be microwaved while underway. Camilla adds onions and green peppers to these dishes and serves at least one side dish such as a baked potato. I must say that these meals” go down” really well when sailing on an over nighter. Being well nourished is important when sailing shorthanded on an overnight trip.

Last minute laundry chores were completed and boat concerns such as taking on fresh water, checking the engine oil, filters, running and navigation lights, charging up battery operated devices, and general ship inspection were completed. Oh, and very importantly, a diver scrubbed the boat’s bottom to free her of slime and accumulated barnacles.   After having sat in St. Pete for several months, she definitely needed a clean bottom, which increased our speed by about a knot and a half! The shaft zincs had eroded away and had to be replaced as well. I carry two spare zincs at all times as well as fan belts, impellers, engine oil, diesel cans on deck, extra device batteries, etc.

I had planned to sail down Tampa Bay to the Manatee River and anchor out just inside the river for the night, giving us a good jump toward Venice, FL the following day. Venice is approximately 47 nm distance from St. Pete and the trip down to the Manatee would have shortened the next day’s run. The more I thought about it and with Camilla’s gentle prodding, I decided to leave at first light in the morning and go all the way to Venice, thus saving us a day’s travel. Leaving at first light means getting up in the dark, walking the dog in the dark, stowing the shore power lines in the dark, and slipping the dock lines when it is felt that one can safely leave the slip in limited light.

The trip down Tampa Bay and onward down the Gulf of Mexico was uneventful and happened on a beautifully sunny day. The wind was nearly non-existent, so we motored. Venice Inlet turned out to be a “piece of cake” and we continued for one mile or so to the Fisherman’s Warf Marina where we stayed for the night. Anchoring out is not as much fun as it used to be since we must walk Rider twice a day and we would be leaving at first light again the following morning.

Cruisers religiously check the weather and I checked my sources that evening; it all looked good. Early in the AM, Camilla walked Rider as I got on the single side band radio to talk with Chris Parker about the weather for our overnight Gulf trip from Venice to Key West. The wind would be light and from the south west during the day and would clock around to an easterly quadrant during the night and increase to 15-20k. We were ready.

Southern Heat slipped her lines just after first light and headed for Venice Inlet once again and on down the Gulf toward Key West. It was another beautiful day and we pulled out the main and jib sails to motor sail toward Key West. This stretch of the Gulf of Mexico is infamous for the number of crab pots, seemingly everywhere. They were even 25nm off shore! The crew of course remained vigilant, checking constantly for pots. The fear of wrapping one around the boat’s shaft was palpable. The real fear was that the pots would still be present during the hours of darkness, when they cannot be seen, thus dodged or not. Late in the afternoon, somewhere near Naples, FL, I saw the beginning of a crab pot line heading east toward shore; we were 23 nm out in the Gulf at the time. I thought that might be the last of the pots as we were so far out and the line started out there and headed inshore. Other than an errant pot once in a while, that thought proved to be true. A huge sigh of relief!

At about the same time, we heard a boater on a 28’ fishing boat declare over the marine vhf radio that he was “out of gas” and about 15 miles out in the Gulf, off of Naples. He called to “any boat” but no one answered. He sounded close by; his radio signal was quite strong. I answered his call, but he did not hear me. He continued to call for assistance from any boat and I answered him several more times. Finally he called the U.S. Coast Guard who replied to him and he did not hear their call either. I contacted the Coast Guard, all the way back up in St. Pete and informed them that I had called the boater several times to no avail. They asked that I try again, so I did; no answer. The coast guard and I concluded that not only was the boater out of gas, his radio was not functioning properly either. Soon, the boater issued a “may day” declaring that he was out at sea and out of gas. The Naples coast guard station got involved and could not raise the boater. Another sailor who had left St. Pete the day before and was now in the area tried several calls, to no avail. Finally the coast guard triangulated the distressed boater’s radio signal and sent a “small boat” out of Naples to conduct a “rescue.” A couple of hours later the coast guard related that the boater had been located and rescued. No one ever could get the boater to hear a radio call.

The planning on that particular day trip did not go far enough. If you are going off shore, doesn’t it make sense to check your fuel level and conduct a quick radio check on one of the automated channels, in that geographical area, channel 27 and 28, before leaving dock?

There was a fantastic sunset shortly after the distressed boater incident. I told Camilla that we might get to see the green flash as we were pretty far south and the sky was clear. It’s only for a partial second if it happens at all and as the sun sunk into the west, at the last second there it was, the green flash! Yes, we both saw it. I have been fortunate enough to see the flash nine times throughout my sailing life.

More planning; the wind had increased and we were motor sailing with low rpm’s on the engine while maintaining 6.5 to 7 knots. I told Camilla that the wind would most likely increase during the night as predicted and said that as much as I hated to, we should reef the sails so that we would not have to do it later, in the dark, with more wind already present, and we would be fatigued. The reefed sails slowed us between 6  and 6.2 knots while motor sailing. We had to watch the angle of heel while motoring as the Yanmar engine is not supposed to be heeled more than 17 degrees for any significant time so I have been told by mechanics over the years. Fortunately, I had purchased a new inclometer in St. Pete, just before our departure, as the old unit had “frosted” over with sun damage.

Early in the morning the wind did increase to 15-20k gusting a little over 20 and I was glad to have the reefs in place.

Of course, before we left St. Pete, I plotted our trip on the multifunction display, marked with waypoints along the way. The way points were incorporated into a route, one that led us directly down the main shipping channel for NW Key West and directly to the Conch Harbor Marina. I knew that I would be tired by then and did not want to leave anything up to using my brain if I didn’t have to. We stand three hour watches throughout the night which works well for us, but one is still very tired the next day.

I had made reservations at the Conch Harbor Marina before departing St. Pete, and Camilla verified that information the day before our arrival. Leave nothing to chance. We are now sitting in Marathon, FL waiting for the head wind to turn so that we may continue our trek homeward; looks like more planning in my future.

Fair winds,

Capt. David P. Hope

S/V Southern Heat