Together the weather is better
Part of an Observer News feature series
I was just a few miles out of New Smyrna Beach on the day I nearly bailed out on this journey. I was shivering uncontrollably and the forecast didn’t look good for improvement. I had been through gales on the Chesapeake, snow and ice in North Carolina and a boisterous ocean off South Carolina, but it was the weather in Florida that nearly brought me to my knees.
I turned in circles waiting for George E. Musson Bridge to open, slamming into the brisk north wind with each turn around. I envied the couple on a trawler circling with me—they appeared warm inside of their pilothouse. Two men on a catamaran, also waiting, bailed out after sailing under the bridge and pulled into a New Smyrna Beach marina. By the time I decided my shivering had reached the point of impairment, I was three miles past that marina and I had no desire to lose ground by turning around. Eventually the sun warmed away my shivering and I happily pulled into the Titusville Municipal Marina late that afternoon.
The next day was even colder so I decided to remain plugged into the electricity offered by the marina. As the morning wore on, I listened to the VHF radio as other boats called for the nearby Titusville Max Brewer Bridge to open. Even as my boat rocked and rolled in the north wind, I second-guessed my decision to stay put for the day. I want to get home. I want to live with my wife again. I want to be able to hop into a car to make the trip to the grocery store rather than make a multi-mile walk through sometimes questionable neighborhoods to buy just a bit more than I can comfortably carry. I want to spend a day in which my schedule isn’t dictated by what time bridges open or what the wave height is offshore. But then I realized that most, if not all, of the boats out there today had couples aboard and having two people meant that one person could always remain below in the relative warmth of the cabin. Sailing alone, I had no such luxury. Regardless of the temperature or conditions outside, I had to remain at the helm for as long as it took to reach my next destination.
A few years ago, I was preparing to take a motorcycle ride called the Four Corners Tour. Sponsored by the Southern California Motorcycle Club, it is a ride in which you have 21 days to reach the four extreme corners of the continental United States via motorcycle. At each corner, you take a photograph of yourself with the bike near a specified landmark and get a gas receipt as proof of your arrival.
While researching the event, I read blogs from other riders who successfully completed it. One rider started from his home in Alaska, making Washington his first of the four corners. On the way down from his home, he encountered snow, ice and all sorts of miserable weather. What struck me, however, were his comments about riding through a cold front in central Florida after hitting the Key West checkpoint. He said the cold weather he endured in the Sunshine State was somehow worse than what he felt while riding down from Alaska. I understand all too well what he meant.
Cold weather in Florida chills a person to the bone—and stays there. Worse, no one feels sorry for you if you say you are freezing to death when the weatherman says it is 50 degrees outside.
Sailing down from Fernandina Beach was the coldest I have felt thus far. The wind felt omnipresent, tearing at my skin and at my resolve to complete this journey. Every time the channel turned off slightly to the east or west and the wind would shift from my back to my side, I would begin shivering uncontrollably. Never in my wildest imagination did I think that I would be sailing in Florida wearing a full set of polypropylene underwear, a stocking cap, gloves and two heavy coats. This has been the only passage of the entire journey in which I have used more than one set of chemical hand warmers in my gloves. I don’t know if it has to do with the simple expectation of warmth in the Sunshine State or the level of moisture in the air, but cold weather in Florida is painfully cold. Fifty degrees with a strong wind has been more uncomfortable than the 20s and 30s I experienced up north.
As I listened to the handful of boats call for the bridge to open while my boat rocked in the wind tied to the dock, I remembered once again that this voyage has been a privilege and complaining about the weather does nothing to change it. I’m lucky to be here. But I’m also not an idiot. The weather matters.
Waiting for weather is an art and a science for sailors. Years ago while sailing from Florida to the Bahamas, we anchored for a night among a few other boats on the desolate and shallow Bahama Banks with no land in sight. As it always seems to happen, in the dark of night a storm came up causing uncomfortable conditions and our anchor to drag slightly. There was no danger; there was nothing but miles of shallow water to drag across. One of the boats dragged for two miles before they finally managed to reset their anchor. The weather forecast was for more of the same heavy wind the next day so we decided to stay put. The other boats decided to chance the heavy conditions, crossing a potentially dangerous deep-water point known as the Tongue of the Ocean, rather than enduring another day bouncing around on the banks.
There was no lonelier feeling than watching the last boat sail out of sight, leaving us alone in the windswept desolation of the Bahamas Banks. As we bobbed in the endless expanse of blue water, I second-guessed my decision. The other boats left, why didn’t we?
In the end, all of the boats made it to their destinations, but not without some harrowing tales to tell. We left the next morning and arrived in Chub Cay on a bright and beautiful afternoon. It was Bahamas sailing as I had envisioned it.
Back in the present and in Florida, the wind was up in Titusville and whitecaps dominated the wide expanse of the Indian River. The radio calls to open the bridge had ceased. No one was venturing out anymore on this day when the temperature struggled into the 40s under a brisk north wind. It was toasty warm inside the cabin of S/V Shadow Marie and the forecast called for better weather in the coming days. I am so close to home and waiting another day won’t mean much in the end. Waiting for weather is as much a part of this journey as navigation and steering. It might just be the hardest part.
Everyone is sick of the weather and more than just being tired of enduring it, I’m sick of writing about it. Fortunately, sailing south from Titusville was much like sailing out of a long, dark winter. On the first night, I anchored off the channel near Sebastian, with my gloves and thermal underwear stowed away. On the second night, I sailed into paradise in Stuart where people where tanned, smiling people were wearing shorts and t-shirts.
Along the way the mindset of the entire journey changed 180 degrees. For nearly 2,000 miles from Cape Cod, I have focused on sailing south, ever south, to home. By Stuart, going home to Tampa Bay meant turning north.
As good as the improving weather was, even better was picking up a woman at a dock in Ft. Pierce. Together, we would experience one of our best days of sailing on the entire journey. Together, it seems the weather is so much better. Together, we are nearly home.
Thank you to those who wrote last week wondering about the wisdom of departing Charleston for the open ocean during a small craft advisory. I use multiple sources of weather information onboard, one of which includes an excellent website from the United States Navy (www.usno.navy.mil/FNMOC). The decision to leave at that time was balanced against our estimated arrival time in Fernandina Beach — arriving at an ocean inlet and an unknown port in the dark is a risk I’d rather not take. Also, the National Weather Service small craft advisory was forecast to expire within a few hours of our departure. In the end, the forecast of moderate winds with somewhat large but subsiding swells was exactly as forecast. It was the best we could hope for given we were sailing in the North Atlantic Ocean in January. Just to be on the safe side, however, I memorized, to the greatest extent possible, each of the several possible ports into which we could escape along the way.