June 6 - 11, 2016: Louisiana to Key West

As I type, it's 2:30 AM (Central Time) on June 10. I have a week's worth of mental notes to get down, but I'd like to start with my current watch.

Everyone else is asleep. We're just South and about 100 miles West of Tampa Bay, with somewhere between 24 and 36 hours to Key West. It's a cloudy night, so the sky is just black. The water is just blackness too, except for the little bit of frothiness illuminated by our boat's running lights. I watched a flashing light on the horizon move by over the last several hours, but right now, there's nothing at all. Our chart plotter shows other boats on AID, which is a system where boats send out a broadcast of their position so others will know where they are, and it shows the nearest signal over 100 miles away. The display for our new radar shows only the rings that are there for distance reference, but no blips indicating an obstacle.

While we've been similarly alone at night, I've usually had the pleasure of a bright sea of stars. The past two nights, I watched Mars march across the starscape, in arcs that were different enough to surprise me. If I let myself linger long enough, I'll catch a shooting star.

Our first night out wasn't nearly so pleasant. We left our Louisiana dock around mid-day last Saturday. We had good weather (bot too-calm wind) getting out of the lake and The Rigolets, ut then we sailed nicely across Lake Borgne and into Mississippi water. We picked a course on the Gulf side of the barrier islands.

We had watched storms all around us, and as I settled in for the night watch, I allowed myself to wonder how long we could skirt between weather systems. I knew that I was overdue for a night watch in rough seas and pouring rain, and I asked Neptune out loud if we could postpone that inevitable baptism.

This time of year, most of the nasty weather forms just offshore, and then marches into land. I didn't worry about the frequent sy lightning in front or behind me, but when I started seeing it to my Starboard, I had the feeling that this was the night. Even though the winds were light, I reduced both sails to tiny little triangles, and when it started to sprinkle, I went below for a rain jacket.

Sure enough, I got the whole shebang. Velvet Elvis pitched up and down in the waves. When the rain came, it blocked out all of the lights from shore, buoys, and other vessels. Lightning flashed overhead.

Part of my brain was saying that I should be shitting my pants, but I really couldn't scare myelf too badly. Velvet Elvis creaked and groaned, but held her speed and course admirably. I knew that the summer squalls were never too big, and although it seemed like forever, we were through the worst of it inside of an hour.

We sailed through what continued to be a wet night, and late Sunday, we decided to duck into Pensacola Bay to wait out Tropical Storm Colin. There's a great little anchorage not too far from the mouth of the bay, and we mostly had it to ourselves for the next couple of days and nights. We took the dinghy to the beach every day, swam a little, watched movies in the cockpit, and spotted dolphins. We had that sunny, breezy, low-humidity beautiful weather that sometimes comes from being 150 miles West of a hurricane.

Tuesday morning, we left again, and started down the rhumb line to Key West. But mid-morning, we came to the realization that after the parts of our trip where we motored through some tough weather, plus two nights running air conditioning on the anchor, we were a lot lower on fuel than we had expected. Coupled with much lighter winds than were forecast, we decided that we better fill up before heading far out to sea. By then, we were South of Destin, so we turned back toward shore again.

We were headed in to Destin Harbor with the wind at our back, which would have been nice, except that the tide was falling, which makes for a strong current headed out to sea. When wind and current oppose each other over shallowing water, it throws up some big waves -- even bigger considering all of the wave energy that was still in the water from the storm.

These waves were really rolling us around uncomfortably, but we could see that they wouldn't go for long, and we weren't worried. We weren't worried until we got turned side-to the waves with a giant rock breakwater to one side. Then, for good measure, the engine died.

We immediately dropped the anchor to get us up off the rocks. The waves swung us around and rolled us forward and back, side to side. One came up over the transom, flowing into the cockpit and then right back out. It's probably the only time I haven't felt 100% safe while sailing.

It's another one where we probably weren't struggling for all that long, but it did feel like forever. I bet we were without engine for 10 minutes, at most. We had a little trouble fighting the waves to get the anchor up, but eventually we did, and we motored around to the fuel dock without further incident.

It would have been cruel to be in the heart of Touristville USA, and not allow them a restaurant meal and an ice cream, so we stayed on the fuel dock for a couple of hours to do that, restock our ice, and catch our breaths a little.

The tide had quit ebbing by the time we left, so while there were still some pretty nice swells where the depth dropped, and it was now dark, it wasn't nearly as bad leaving. We also picked up some good wind, and we were able to shut off the motor and do some sailing.

By Wednesday morning, the wind had come around to the back of the boat. It's a slower point of sail, and to remedy that, we now have a spinnaker. Spinnakers are the big parachute-looking sails -- often with bright color patterns -- ballooning off of the front of the boat that you see in lots of sailing photographs. After the night watch. I woke Mrs. theskinnyonbenny and went forward to hoist the sail.

I don't know exactly what happend, but I made such a mess out of sail and line that I spent two hours up on the deck untangling the mess. (I should mention that we're still rookies when it comes to sailing with a spinnaker. It's a special skill set, and like most things sailing, you learn by fucking up and then rectifying your mistake.)

Once up, we sailed beautifully for the whole day. I think this was the day where a small pod of little dolphins put on a Sea World-worthy show for us (minus the animal cruelty). They would fly up out of the water and flip. It really seemed to be either for our entertainment or for their own. I rushed down to get my camera, and when I returned to the cockpit, I was disappointed to see that their show was fixed in place, and that we were quickly moving away. There was one last jump, and I just hit the shutter button on the camera at chest level without any time to aim, focus, or zoom.

We hadn't seen another boat in almost the entire day, when in early evening, a fishing boat approached. They had seen our big black spinnaker from a distance, and come to figure out what it might be. Once they had identified us as sailboat, they remembered a radio broadcast about one that had gone missing during the tropical storm, so they came close to make sure that we weren't the castaways.

We ended up talking for a few minutes, and we traded someone else's left over beer for a beautiful red snapper. Then, they took a few pictures of our super-cool spinnaker and headed off.

Thursday was uneventful. We had to motor through nearly windless seas all day. We did get hailed over the VHF by a boat on the horizon that I hadn't noticed. It ended up being a sailboat from Orange Beach who were on their way home from Key West and Cuba. Having seen nearly no one else in days, it was good to hear from them.

In the afternoon, we had another dolphin visit, and I promise that it never gets old. They came and swam with the boat, arching out of the water right next to us. The water out here is deep cobalt blue, and clear enough to see them beside us, even when they're below the surface.

I still have some mental notes about how we've eaten aboard for all of these days and about the disappointing nature of the books that I've selected and read (or listened to) so far, but there's no chance that anyone has made it down this far in the post, and it's taken me more than an hour to write all of this.