I just got back from bringing my Rival 32 Melos back home. Well at least back to her second home for her real home is England where I will take her eventually. The trip began in Fernandina Beach, Florida where my girlfriend, Janet Grobe, had left the boat for the winter after her single-handed trip to Bermuda last year.
The delivery (for that's what it really was as we didn't have time to stop anywhere much on the way back) was essentially in two parts. Janet and I would begin the trip from Fernandina Beach with the intention of sailing offshore down to Miami and then taking a few days to pass along the Keys to Key West. There she would leave and two friends would arrive to join me for the Gulf of Mexico crossing to Galveston.
My first two days were spent checking out the equipment and engine and doing a quick haul to remove the quick growing Florida barnacles from the bottom and, more importantly, from the propeller. On Sunday Janet arrived and we had a Monday am. departure planned. But Sunday night the wind picked up, the rain began and the cold front arrived. The forecast for Monday was 30 Knots of wind offshore with some biggish seas. Should we leave or not was our first decision.
If I had been cruising it would have been easy. Without hesitation I would have stayed a while longer at the delightful Fernandina Beach Marina, while I waited for an improvement in the weather. But we had a schedule to keep and so it was not so easy. We had two other options: to set out offshore and cope with the weather or to motor along the intracoastal waterway. We chose the latter and set off for St Augustine where we eventually arrived after dark. But even this short trip was not without it's difficulties as we encountered a heavy rain storm which reduced visibility just as we were about to cross the St. John's River and later, some confusing changes in the buoyage as we crossed the entrance channel at St Augustine in the dark with the dangerous shoal areas all too close to leeward.
Next day saw a change in the weather but no improvement as strong westerly winds kept our dock lines bar taut. I should have liked to stay here too, both to visit this historic city and because of the weather but we needed to press on. And so we left, and found ourselves well heeled to leeward and heavy spray reaching the cockpit though we had no sails up and were merely motoring. The whole morning continued in this way and it was not easy for us despite our experience. While I steered for the next mark, Janet checked the chart and calculated bearings to the next mark. In some ways it would have been easier offshore for heading south, we were constantly aware of the danger of straying out of the channel to leeward where we would have been blown hard aground. And it did not help that stray fishing pots frequently appeared before us just threatening to foul our prop and cause our feared grounding!
We anchored that night at New Symerna Beach in an area recommended in the cruising guide, but even this was not uneventful as the strong currents and gusty winds caused Melos to perform pirouettes around her anchor until, sometime after dark, the anchor pulled loose and we had to reset it in the dark. That done I stayed on deck until the tide turned and then, with wind and current holding us in the same direction we could check our bearings then turn in for some sleep - though only for 6 hours until the tide again turned.
By now we were well behind our schedule, for offshore we had anticipated sailing 24 hours a day and making Miami in 3 days. Now after two days we were barely half way there. We were away at daybreak on Wednesday, heading south for the next safe outlet to the Gulf at Cape Canaveral and listening to the weather on the VHF. The prediction was for winds from the west or northwest yet we experienced winds from the southwest which would have made it a hard beat offshore. And why was the forecast so awry? The actual weather reports confirmed our observations yet the forecast continued to predict moderating northwesterly winds.
As we approached the Canaveral Inlet Canal which would take us out in to the Atlantic we had to make the decision: should we head out here and sail overnight for the next couple of nights with the possibility of arriving in Miami early Friday. Eventually we decided to stay inside despite the forecast and despite the further delay that would ensue. But later in the day as we motor- sailed down the wide Indian River we here glad of our decision as the strong gusty southwesterly increased with the result that we needed full foul weather gear on. And this in the intracoastal. All along the broad river we saw boats tucked up at anchor along the western shore; clearly cruisers awaiting more clement weather to proceed. Had we been cruising we would, no doubt, have done likewise.
We were underway again at daybreak, on our way to Fort Pierce where the short inlet would enable us to head out. But now we had another decision to make. The weather had moderated and the wind had indeed eventually gone into the northwest yet we were now so far behind our schedule that we would have had to sail continuously for two nights just to reach Key West in time for Janet to drive back to Fort Lauderdale and get her plane back to Houston. We could probably get there but we would see little on the way and I would be faced with setting out across the Gulf already tired. It was a hard decision to make, to give up the idea of at least spending a little time in the Keys, but we opted to take the more tranquil route via the Okeechobee Waterway to Fort Myers and the West Coast of Florida.
Making sound decisions at sea requires sound seamanship which can only be gained from experience. We ended up spending the whole week motoring (with some motor-sailing) in the intracoastal which was entirely contrary to our plans. And even having prudently opted for this we found ourselves in situations where we could easily have had problems all because we insisted on carrying-on when more sensibly we should have waited for better weather. Our decision to leave St Augustine is a good example. Did we really have to leave then or not. Our decision was based on the following constraints:
- We need to get the boat back to Texas
- We have a goal of getting to Key West by Saturday
- It is easy in the intracoastal waterway
At the time all of these seemed important considerations yet now, on reflection it is easy to see them differently:
- Why was it so important to get the boat back to Texas? After all we had just left it in Fernandina Beach for 6 months
- Why did we have to get to Key West? There was no particular reason other than it was a goal we had set (and I like to achieve my goals).
- The intracoastal is not necessarily easy and in difficult conditions it can be more testing than sailing offshore. It just gives us the illusion of security because land is close. In the conditions we had, we could easily have seriously damaged the boat and even put our lives at risk all if a wayward fishing pot had fouled our propeller
And this is the crux of so many decisions that have to be made when making a sailing trip. We are nearly always faced with a schedule; a time when we have to get back to
work. And if we don't get the boat home then the complications (and expense) of leaving it elsewhere appear to be considerable. How hard it is to make a decision based on good seamanship against these constraints. Yet many problems occur for this very reason: that time constraints impose a poor decision upon us. Try not to let your decisions about safety be affected by time schedules and I will try and do the same!