Our training plan is to scout all 3 check points and the best place to start is the most famous “filter” of them all, CP1. A lot has been written and discussed on this check point. Several decisions have to be made here and all Class 4 boats have to transition at some point from sailing to paddling or rowing as the bridge just before the check point forces you to take down your mast(s). The actual check point is a large kayak rental/expedition company called Grand Tours. That location was our goal but first we had lots of sailing and rowing to do. We rigged the boat with a full load as if we were on the EC. We had all the required gear and everything else we would actually carry for the race. Thanks to the JSI/Island Nautical connection, we have solved the storage problems of the Sea Pearl. Bill and his staff sewed up shock corded mesh panels under the side decks and installed 8 gear bags (6 in the main cockpit and 2 in the aft cockpit). Now we had more storage room than we had gear to go in it…sweet.
We hit the road a little before 6 am Saturday morning. The drive from St. Pete to Placida is just under 2 hours. We launched at Elrdred’s Marina which is at the base of the swing bridge that goes over to Gasparilla Island and the town of Boca Grande. Eldred’s turned out to be quite a place to start the trip. It’s a family run and funky fishing type of marina. A real contrast to the upscale image the Placida/Boca Grand area is trying to sell the tourists and retirees. This is old Florida. You pay a crusty old guy 5 bucks to launch and then head on down to the 2 lane gravel ramp. If you are rigging a sailboat, LOOK UP! Eldreds is criss crossed with electric wires. They are knarly, as we saw later in the day. We watched in horror from a hundred yards away as a Sea Pearl Tri pulled out of the water and took a right turn into a power line and ripped both masts out of the boat. It was ugly but thankfully no one was hurt.
Once launched it was dead downwind in about 12 to 15 knots along the Boca Grand bridge and out Gasparilla Pass. The wind was as predicted out of the NE. We pulled on our foulies and watched the breakers up ahead. I was driving and Runs was navigating like a mad man.
He had the GPS and his iPad going since we hadn’t been through here before. Luckily, he was right on the money with his course. We followed his pre-programed track and it took us right through the breaking waves and out into the gulf. We reefed down the main and mizzen 2 turns on each and turned north (starboard tack) into a moderate chop.
The destination was Stump Pass about 7 miles ahead. The weather was post card perfect with bright blue sky and temps about 72.
An hour or so later we saw the #1 daymarker for Stump Pass. This was a nice surprise since we had heard this pass wasn’t marked, extremely shallow and hard to navigate. We found all of this to be exaggerated. The pass is well marked and recently dredged.
The only problem was we had to beat into a pretty narrow channel. After several tacks we made the mistake of taking a short cut around an island just inside the cut. This would have been a great move if the wind was behind us. Instead we had to continue to beat into an ever narrowing channel, dodge some fisherman and walking birds all the while sweating in our foul weather gear as the temperatures increased.
We finally made it to the ICW and settled down to a nice port tack reach for about 4 miles. Then we got headed and almost run down by the Palm Island Ferry. This is a weird little ferry service. It runs about 200 yards in each direction across the ICW from the mainland to Palm Island. After the ferry encounter it was rowing and sailing the rest of the 4 miles back to the Boca Grand swing bridge. The bridge opened right on schedule and we sailed through. The next obstacle is an abandoned railroad bridge with a pretty wide opening. We had an incoming tide which made sailing through the bridge pretty easy. At night with an outgoing tide would be a different story. A few hundred yards later we entered the channel that leads down into Placida and ultimately Grand Tours. It was dead upwind so we anchored out of the channel and unstepped the masts. Since I had been driving most of the way, I switched places with Bill and he steered and I rowed. After a pretty easy 20 minutes of rowing we came up to the last obstacle which is a low bridge leading to a very narrow channel. In the dark it could be somewhat intimidating but during the day it was pretty easy. Five minutes later we were tied up at Grand Tours. Bill had a nice chat with Ashley the proprieter of the kayak company and I munched my sandwich and called my wife, Joy.
We had accomplished our mission. Tracks and waypoints were recorded in the iPad and we have a visual reference to work with three and half months from now when it counts. Our rowing and “motorsailing” techniques have improved dramatically. We saw both passes that lead into CP1. Our navigation systems (iPad and GPS) are flawless and easy to use. Our 14 watt solar panel and battery system are more than adequate. It will easily charge our iPhones, iPad and Go Pro camera. Boat handling is becoming second nature and we’ve learned to live with the quirks of the Sea Pearl 21. We have 2 more check points to go and hope those scouting missions go as well as this one did.
We headed back the short distance to Eldred’s to pull out and have a well deserved beer or two. It’s amazing who you can run into while out practicing for the EC. We pulled into Eldreds along with Bill Fite (tribal name Jarhead) and Meade Gougeon (tribal name Yellow Thing). They were coming back from a couple of days at Cayo Costa where they had been part of the West Coast Trailer Sailors fall rendezvous. We spent the next hour talking with them and of course picking their brains about the secrets of finishing an EC. Bill as he usually does gave us a great tip without even thinking about it. We were talking about our improved rowing technique. Bill showed us his Shaw and Tenney oars and the modification he made to them. He puts reflective tape on his oars to indicate the blade orientation. He said he learned that trick the hard way when he was tired and cold and couldn’t see the tips of his oars in the dark. We also discovered that our ash oars are about twice as heavy as his spruce ones. Another modification we need to make if the budget holds out. We packed up the boat and were home a few hours later.
This trip although just a daysail was a big confidence builder. We have sailed the Sea Pearl a lot this fall in mostly windy conditions. We’ve only used the mizzen staysail once and we’ve only seen the new Doyle sails unreefed a couple of times. More checkpoints and more to learn in the coming months.