Just in Time for Sally

I am ready.

The final countdown sequence is on.

I turn the key in the ignition, wait for a short moment, then I crank the engine. The 62 hp come to life immediately, sputtering at first but quickly the good ole diesel machine finds into its rhythm. The warning lights come off, the exhaust spits water, and after a few minutes the alternator kicks in. 

“Engine ready to get underway”, I report to myself.

“Cast off bow line, cast off bow and aft spring and haul them in!”, I give the order to my imaginary crew that swiftly complies. 

“Aye, bow line, bow spring and aft spring cast off and hauled in, Cap!”

It is in moments like these when I wish I had a crew, tired of fulfilling my own orders.

Now it was only the stern line that held Seefalke at the dock of Ft. Myers Yacht Basin. But I cannot cast it off just yet.

Half a boat length in front of me a fancy super yacht is docked, with probably three times my beam. Her name is “Snow Ghost”. I wonder how much “snow” actually is stowed on that “ghost” boat. Nomen est omen, huh?!

Seefalke Next to Snow Ghost in Ft. Myers

Behind me there is a shoal. Invisible, but the local diver warned me earlier not to back up any further. It was pure luck I didn’t hit it when I first docked he said. It is unmarked and just half a meter deep. So I am literally stuck between a rock and a hard place now. No big deal I thought, cast off all lines but the stern line, use the bow thruster to turn me into position, then cast off the stern line, rudder hard starboard, engine full speed ahead and off I would go safely past that multi-million dollar floating genital extension and well clear of the shoal. 

But here is my dilemma:

There is current and there is wind. Both are not helpful at the moment. All week I was here there was never any wind. How often have I wished for a fresh breeze in the broiling heat! Current yes, we are in a river after all, but no wind. A few gusts during the afternoon thunderstorms, that was it. 

Never a Breeze at the Banks of Caloosahatchee River

But now, just on time for my departure, fifteen to eighteen knots of wind are pushing me relentlessly against the concrete pier with those stupid huge wooden piles. I see the thunderstorm approaching. It is early today for a thunderstorm. But no big deal, I would just wait it out. An hour, maybe two tops and I would be on my way to Key West and could still follow the falling tide down the river into the ocean. A short 140 nautical miles passage.

But my departure window is closing. I have to get going or prepare myself for a longer stay. That I don’t want, not even talking about that I can hardly afford it. The girls of Ft. Myers Yacht Basin are sweet as can be and would give me any discount they could think of, but Florida is Florida, and Florida is the land of crazy docking fees.

The Atlantic is busy at the moment. Hurricanes, tropical storms, depressions and disturbances lined up like on a rope of pearls. I am not worried about the tropical storms Paulette or Rene in the center of the Atlantic, even though they are forecast to become hurricanes very soon. They would curve north and make the North Atlantic an uncomfortable place but not the Gulf. 

The Atlantic Is Busy At This Time

The tropical depression in western Africa is still too far to worry about, it has the potential to delay or divert my onward travels, yes, but nothing to worry about at this time. 

But there is this stupid little tropical disturbance. It just popped up east of the Bahamas and the NHC, the National Hurricane Center (the US National Hurricane Center in Miami is the co-ordinator for the hurricane forecast in the Atlantic) would not give it much chance of development. It would move right into my path, though. Reason enough to study the detailed discussion for this weather system.

“Discussion” is what the meteorologists call the document that describes how they come to their forecast conclusion. It is usually a two page document in which the different factors that are supposed to have influence on the weather system in question are weighed and evaluated. I already read many of those discussions and I slowly start to be able to decipher their hieroglyphic language.

The guy who wrote this discussion was sure it would get uncomfortable in the eastern Gulf very soon even though the leading weather models wouldn’t support his conclusion. This is why he downrated the “probability of development”.

I checked the GFS (Global Forecast System) and also the ECMWF (European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast) models before and yes, he was right, they promised light to moderate northerly to easterly winds that I planned on utilizing to slowly take me to Key West. It actually looked more like motor sailing than storm sailing conditions.

But the guy who wrote that discussion, I think his name was Martinez, had a gut feeling this would become something bigger very soon, and if I have learned something in my sailing career then that the gut feeling of an experienced meteorologist is worth more than thousand computer models.

So, long story short, I want to get out of here and be in Key West before that tropical disturbance would disturb me too much. If I would miss the tide it would take me forever to reach the mouth of the mighty Caloosahatchee River and, consequently, I would miss the moderate breeze that would move southwards with me, and as a result, all my route planning would be nil and void. Then I would be sitting ducks for that weather to come and get me.

This is just for you to understand that I could not wait forever and that if I would not depart within the next few hours I would be tied to this dock for at least another week. 

On the other hand, my bow thruster is not powerful enough to push my thirteen tons against fifteen to eighteen knots of on shore wind and the tidal river current would push me right into that super yacht. I am not worried about my boat, Seefalke is made from steel and she would easily win a tête-à-tête with Snow Ghost. Only I am sure the owner would not appreciate Seefalke’s signature on her high gloss polished hull. I also cannot back out because of the shoal right behind me. 

I must think of my own quote “Patience is the captain’s most important quality. It’s the lack of patience that sink ships.”

Being on a schedule is deadly, it makes you set sail when you know you shouldn’t. It makes you lie to yourself. 

“Yes, I can take that shortcut!”, and bang, you run aground. 

“Yes, my motor is strong enough to maneuver out of this narrow marina at these winds!”, and bang, you drift full speed ahead into the boat just docked next to you. 

“Yes, I should reef now but I want to get there before nightfall!”, and bang, your sail is shredded to pieces.

Impatience at sea is deadly. And I know it. And now I am stuck here with three options:

1) I could try the maneuver and if I fail spend the rest of my life working off the damage I would do to that super yacht. (Ok, I am actually insured, but still…) 

2) I could wait a few more hours, run straight into that tropical depression and find out in person if the NHC meteorologist’s gut or the computer weather models were right.

3) I could just turn off the engine, call it a day, go to the counter, pay another 500 USD and stay here for another week.

And while I am evaluating my options, I notice that the wind calms down. It’s not fifteen to eighteen knots anymore but just twelve to fifteen now. And once in a while it even goes below ten knots. That my bow thruster can handle. 

I order my imaginary stern deck crew to double the fenders and put the stern line on slip.  I order that same crew to populate the foredeck and get the big boat hook ready to help pushing us off. I tell my virtual machine room crew to go slow speed ahead. Then the helmsman gets order to put the rudder hard starboard. 

We are all ready for the next break in the gusts, it would just take one word of the captain and the maneuver would begin. Waiting. Fifteen knots, seventeen, fourteen, fifteen again. Pheeeww… the stern line groans under the load. Then twelve knots, ten, eight, nine… 


“Push off the bow to starboard, bow thruster full starboard, engine half speed ahead!”

I push the engine lever forward, hit the starboard button of the bow thruster. The bow invisibly slowly starts turning, arrrgh. The manual says max. two minutes per hour to avoid overheating. So after one minute I jump on the foredeck, grab the boat hook and start pushing. Slowly the bowsprit starts pointing outwards. But not enough yet. Back in the cockpit I hit the bow thruster again. But the wind is picking up. Eighteen knots again. No way!

“Abort maneuver!”, I sigh.

Sluggishly Seefalke moves back to her starting position.

After ten minutes another break in the gusts. Another attempt. This time the bow starts moving, I keep hitting the bow thruster, I don’t want to lose the momentum. It smells burnt, but it’s now or never! 

My Poor Bow Thruster

Finally the bow thruster quits on me, wads of smoke are blocking my view to the bow hatch. I run onto the foredeck, give the boat her final push, run back to the stern deck, haul in the stern line, jump into the cockpit and crank the engine to full speed ahead.

Eventually my ole steel battle ship gains speed, we come well clear of that super yacht and finally are on our way. 

Finally on Our Way Down Caloosahatchee River

“Clear the deck!”, is my last order to my virtual crew before I go below to check on my poor bow thruster. It does not smell good, that’s a fact. But it got us out of here and that is the main thing. I switch off the bow thruster main, I will take care of it later.

As we, I like to refer to Seefalke and me as “us”, make way down the mighty Caloosahatchee River I reluctantly collect the fenders and stow them, coil up the docking lines and get the deck ready for whatever it will be that is awaiting us out there.

Will it be the relaxed sail that GFS, the Global Forecast System, the leading US weather model, is promising or will it be as rough as the NHC meteorologist feels in his guts? The most interesting is that even the European weather model ECMWF (European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts) is in a very rare intimate accord with its American counterpart. And still the NHC guy feels differently. 

The system is still over the Bahamas and it sure will take two days to make it here but there is a little detail that alerts me. The “disturbance” had been upgraded to a “tropical depression” after just two days and in parentheses the cute name “Sally” appeared. So they already reserved a name for this system. That fast?? That was worrying indeed.

I still have internet and I download a set of GRIB files (Gridded Binary weather files) for both GFS and ECMWF models and both show finest sailing weather all the way from today (Thursday) till beginning of next week and for my complete route. I am confused. But I know I don’t have a lot of time to waste.

A Gorgeous Sunset

When I finally reach the Gulf, dolphins are welcoming me like almost every time. The sunset is gorgeous and the night comfortable with a light breeze. Just as the weather forecast promised. At sunrise I pass the distinct skyline of Marco Island, the breeze dies and I turn on the engine to help our progress. That’s something I do very rarely, I rather enjoy the slowness and wait for the wind than breaking the quietude and peacefulness with that roar and stink of the diesel.

Sunrise at Marco Island

But this time, I just want to make it to Key West before Sally does. In the early afternoon black clouds come up from the east, the sky sparkling and twinkling from lightnings, whereas the west grants me another awesome sunset. I prefer to not look to the east too much. Too scary. 

Surrounded by Fierce Thunderstorms – Too Scary to Look East

One thunderstorm passes my stern, I barely escape its gust front with those dreadful fringes that easily can turn into water spouts as my VHF radio starts to crackle:

“Securité, securité, securité, this is the United States Coast Guard sector Key West, Florida… heavy thunderstorms… local gusts up to 50 knots… locally high waves… local risk of water spouts… all mariners are requested to seek safe harbor immediately… this is the United States Coast Guard. Out.”

Holy molly!! The US Coast Guard is not easily impressed. If they make an announcement like that they have a reason. But no safe harbor close to me, to my east it is just the vast Everglades in 60 nautical miles and it is just another 60 nautical miles to Key West. So I have no choice than to continue my track as I find myself surrounded by fierce thunderstorms at nightfall.

I replace my medium Genoa with my small one made of heavy fabric and tie a reef in the main. The gusts beautifully accelerate my heavy steel ship and we cut through the waves like a hot knife through butter. 

We Are Cutting Through the Waves Like a Hot Knife Through Butter

The gusts are not too bad, twenty five maybe twenty eight knots, easily manageable but the lightnings start to concern me. I start counting the time, calculating the distance, estimating the direction, trying to figure the thunderstorms’ movements, making course adjustments to avoid them.

Calculating Lightning Distances

But all in all I feel pretty helpless and finally decide to just steer the course that takes me to Key West the fastest. This is where my good friends from S/V Off the Grid are waiting for me. 

My Friends From S/V Off the Grid

After a sleepless night I finally have a visual of Mud Key in the morning. The waves build up, but nothing too worrying yet, just high enough to see those thousands of lobster traps just in the very last moment. How many can there be, really?!! A minefield!! I am relieved when I finally reach the approach channel as hell breaks loose. 

The sky turns pitch black dark and the torrential rain takes away all visibility. I finally drop my heavy duty Bruce anchor, whose name is Cristo (after I rode out Tropical Storm Cristobal in Mexico earlier in the season, I promised to name it.) just outside the channel and decide to wait it out right here.

Three hours later, when there is a short break in the rain, I continue to my anchorage, set plenty of chain and think to myself: “Just in time!”

Visibility Zero

I admire the Coast Guard radio operator. She remains cool when all the distress calls are coming in, gives her best to calm people down. And I keep my fingers crossed for all the poor souls out there fighting for their lives. Nothing I can do from here. I hear that a Coast Guard officer who was sent to rescue the crew of a small sailboat fell off the helicopter and is now fighting for his own life, too, in three meter seas. This sneaky Sally bitch!

Nothing I can do. Just in time.