Redemption in the Keys

“Sail the boat! Are you a sailor or what? Turn off the damn motor and SAIL this thing! “

Said the voice in my head over the mutter and grumble of the outboard.

We were motor sailing northbound in Barnes Sound with a building 10 knot seabreeze, flat water, sunshine and high seventies – perfect – and I was motor sailing!

But I had an excuse – conditions during our cruise of the Florida Keys had been awful. Thunderstorms, high winds, bugs had all conspired to keep us pinned down on the bayside of the Keys – swatting, scratching, sweltering.

No, thats not true. Those conditions existed sure, but what kept us – er, me – pinned down was a stubborn insistence to see the worst. My nasty disposition in the face of difficult conditions made a difficult situation insurmountable. Each setback took me deeper into grumpy and further from the sanguine cruise I imagined and expected. I expected perfection dammit!

The cruise began with a massive downpour on Key Largo. The rain was so heavy we decided to forego launching Maravilla (our 1990 F27) at John Pennekamp State Park and left her on the trailer in the parking lot. We drove to Key West (no rain there) for the day and on our return, spent the rainy night in the boat on the trailer – how romantic.

The next day was quintessential Florida – hot, humid, mostly sunny – we rigged and launched the boat, and picked up a mooring (no anchoring allowed in the park’s coral) the only boat there. In the morning, clouds threatened, but we set the screacher and motor-sailed in a light breeze an easy 30 miles southwest down Hawk Channel on the ocean side to cross into Florida Bay under the Channel Five Bridge. We found another lonely mooring among hundreds of crab pots at Lignumvitae Key State Park.


It was a strange, hot, buggy and windless night. A spectacular lightning show kept us awake as huge thunderstorms built and rolled north up the Florida Straits between the Keys and Cuba. Tiny vicious voracious no-see-um gnats raised hundreds of itchy welts. Bug spray became indispensable. We needed more – lots more.

Squally conditions continued as an occluded front stalled over the Keys. Cold northern air and hot southern air roiled and burbled over and around us. Summer wrestled with Winter. The weather gods promised a strong East-North East flow as the front cleared, right on the bow, with nasty seas. If we went down the chain to Key West we could be trapped there for weeks by strong easterlies. We would have to truncate our cruise and find shelter for a couple of days somewhere towards Miami.

We stopped in Islamorada, paddled ashore and walked two miles (four round trip) to a decrepit bait shop to buy all the bug spray they had left. Suitably goo-ed and lotion-ed, sticky and glowing like DEET reactors – we motored north up the bay side to Tarpon Basin on Key Largo – anchored in 8 ft of water, sandy bottom, 360 degree protection and a free dinghy dock. The wind howled.

By now, I just wanted to haul the boat and evacuate the Keys as fast as possible. Too intimidated by thunderstorms to enjoy the islands, surrounded by mangroves in a tannin laden bay , eaten alive by gnats, hot, sweaty, dirty this was NOT the lovely tropical paradise I’d envisioned. Blackness was the mood aboard. As soon as the tempest let up I intended to go north around Key Largo and make for Pennekamp’s ramp on the ocean side. Hauling the boat and skedaddling became my only focus.

That morning, a line of thunderstorms developed in the Gulf Stream, malevolent and malicious things aimed right at us. Impossible! How was it that the rest of the Keys were enjoying light winds and sunny skies while dark purple-black thunderheads loomed over Tarpon Basin. They were the perfect manifestation of my very dark mood. Willful and defiant – I dared them. I flashed two birds – universal eff-you symbols – towards the heavens.

The anchor rode was all cockles, loops, whorls and tangles as it lay on deck after I hauled it off the bottom. I struggled to stow it while we motored towards the channel –  and  ran hard aground. Backing off the bank, we motored gingerly down the channel while I continued to wrestle with the rode. The thunderstorm built directly over us, black and ugly. A white squall fog of milky wind-blown rain and sea came across the bay – we would have to anchor – again. We dropped the Rocna in grass behind a small mangrove swamp just off the channel. A stupendous blast of rain and wind hit us – we held – we held – we dragged. We were blown backwards away from the mangroves and out into the bay. I went forward to pay out more rode, and saw a trawler looming out of the wind smoked mist not thirty yards away.

The wind, anchor and engine worked against each other and made the anchor rode tangled and unmanageable. I yelled for Dawn to stop the engine – meaning put it in neutral – and she turned it off. The wind moaned in the rigging, the rain splattered my foulie hood and dripped in my eyes, the chug-chug of the trawler engines was all I could hear as we slowly spun downwind across his path.

So there we drifted – in the cross-hairs of disaster. For a week, I had not respected the sea, the boat, my crew, myself or the elements. Reality didnt match my expectation and it pissed me off. I wanted perfection. Where was the sunshine – the warm easy breezes – the paradise? My willful decision to up-anchor in the face of  a threatening thunderstorm resulted in an impossible tangle on the foredeck, the boat aground, a dragging anchor, no engine, and imminent danger of collision.

Sailing is a privilege, a gift, that makes me pay attention. Not to what I hope or wish for, but to what is. Sailing puts me smack in the path of the divine. Sailing – no matter the conditions – is to be revered and respected. I forgot that.

Sigh…….Thank you Neptune.

The trawler maneuvered around us, we got the engine started and the anchor stowed, the squalls passed and we made our sheepish way north. The mood aboard remained somber, as we motored through Barnes Sound and approached the Card Sound bridge.

Thats when I heard the voice. The “SAIL THE DAMN BOAT!” voice. We had the main up already and the jib rigged and ready to fly. All I had to do was haul the halyard. So I did.

Jib set and drawing, I killed the engine and fell off to the breeze. From noisy motor-sailing at 6 knots dead into the wind, we went cheerful close reaching under sail at 9. It was glorious! Dawn came up from reading below and joined me in the cockpit. I asked if she wanted to steer and she said “Yes – of course – just tell me what to do.” I hadn’t given her much opportunity to sail Maravilla before. OK – ready? She nodded.

“Take hold of the tiller, let her come up a little, now ease her back down ever-so slightly, pull the tiller gently, gently, almost a thought rather than an actual movement….thats it…8, 9, 10, 10.5, 11…11.5 knots. Now, do it again. Dawn picked up on apparent wind sailing like a natural and she beamed her thousand watt smile at me. Soon we were kicking up a nice double wake, criss-crossing the sound at 10 and 11 knots. We tore over Card Sound on our way to Pumpkin Key slaloming with the wind. It was all smiles aboard Maravilla, as the three of us – Dawn, Maravilla and I – caromed across sparkling blue-green water. The black mood followed the thunderstorms over the horizon.


Off Pumpkin Key, quiet and tranquil, without using the motor, we sailed to our anchor. A squadron of dolphins crossed our bow, their blowy breath heralding a tremendous sunset. Pink, gold, orange, blue and cream lit the sky in an ever-changing celebration. An osprey soared along the key in the last of the light – his wings glowing gold. At first we were giddy snapping pictures willy-nilly, but then the immaculate beauty of the thing – dolphins, island, osprey and sun – overcame us and we sat still and quiet on the nets – bathed in beauty.

The next day, we sailed through Angelfish Creek out to the turquoise ocean and down Hawk Channel back to Pennekamp. Three hours of autohelm steering on port tack without touching a sheet while the palm studded coast of Key Largo slipped past. Lesson learned – again – here was paradise.


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