Night Sail on Tampa Bay

Well, it seems like we’ve been all over Florida during the last month. Not exactly the tourist hot spots but then the EC course is a bit off the beaten path. The course has been scouted. We live in the starting area and have sailed those waters for decades. We’ve been to all the checkpoints and sailed in and out of them and have our tracks recorded. We put 100 miles on a flats boat touring all the hot spots of Florida Bay. We know how to sail a Sea Pearl about as good as we’re gonna get, so what is left? A night sail of course. RWB has been talking about the importance of this for months and he’s right. Our EC plan is to sail 24/7 until we finish, barring breakdowns (mental and physical) or impassable weather situations. A night sail was the next step in our training. Saturday, January 26 was a full moon with predicted good wind and somewhat cool weather. Here’s how it unfolded.

First we had to do a beach launch. Our newly purchased beach rollers had arrived earlier that week. To review, the EC features a LeMans type of start. The boats are required to be on the beach above the high water mark. Our challenge, when Chief gives the “go” signal is to muscle a 600 plus pound boat 30 feet or so down to the water. The standard method for doing this is inflatable beach rollers. The rules say you have to take them with you so inflatable is the key word here. Since we’ve practiced just about everything else, why not a beach launch as well. Of course, we recorded this manuever so our blog readers could have a good laugh. Strange thing was, it worked pretty easy and we didn’t fall down or look stupid doing it.

The night sail started at the beach area of Gandy Blvd between St. Pete and Tampa at about 5:00 pm. We dumped the boat off the trailer onto the sand and then did our beach launch. We waved goodbye to Mrs. EB and headed out in a building 12 to 14 knot northerly.

Our basic plan was to sail up to Pierce’s Paradise (described a couple of posts ago) and have dinner on the beach there. Then we would sail all over Tampa Bay until the sun came up in the morning. We had a blustery run down the bay past the west side of MacDill AFB and then reached along the exclusion zone of MacDill over to Pierce’s. About the time it started to get dark we realized that our night sail coincided with the biggest party of the year in Tampa; Gasparilla Day. A line of boats filled with drunken Gasparilla partiers was coming down the bay at a high rate of speed. We were on the direct line from party central to the big boat ramp on the Tampa side of the Gandy bridge.

The marine patrol and Coast Guard was all over the place. Here we were munching granola bars and sailing along the side of the ship channel all dressed up in foul weather gear with our life jackets on. The partiers thought we were pretty dorky looking as they waked us and gave us the finger. The cops had their hands full and didn’t pay any attention to us as we tried to keep clear of the flotilla. We had two beers on board that we were saving for the morning when we finished our sailing adventure. So at this point we didn’t have enough party supplies on board to join in the Gasparilla celebration. Oh well, maybe next year.

We got to Pierce’s about 8:30 pm and had the island to pretty much to ourselves. RWB started boiling water and before long we had Mountain House Beef Stroganoff. It was great tasting and easy to cook. Not much hassle when all you have to do is boil 2 cups of water and pour it into a pouch, wait 8 minutes and eat.

DINNER

The dinner was followed by some of Joy’s chocolate chip cookies and some strong Starbucks Via instant coffee. We stayed for about an hour and then set off down the bay in a medium to dying breeze. This night would prove to be a good test of our clothing and foul weather gear program. Also our navigation, battery, sleeping and lighting systems. The temperature only got down to about 60 but it was super damp and by 10 pm we were covered in moisture. Everything was wet and cold. We took turns steering and relaxing in the cozy little cabin. As the wind lightened around 9:30 pm we kept hearing music. At first, we were each afraid to mention it as the nearest land was the isolated area of Bishops Harbor. Then we figured out the music was coming from 7 miles away at the St. Pete Pier. The continuous music from out of nowhere made for a pretty weird night. We sailed across the bay toward St. Pete and the music got louder. With the full moon lighting the night and music blaring from the west, we didn’t need to do much navigating.

We passed by St. Pete about midnight and headed back up the bay toward MacDill AFB. RWB was driving in super light air and EB was sleeping when we got hit by a mega bright spotlight. A 90′ Coast Guard cutter was sitting motionless near the ship channel on the south side of MacDill. They yelled over to us to monitor channel 16 and call them, which we did, but we got no response. We sailed away and they didn’t bother us again. Once they figured out we were the sailors from earlier in the night we think they assumed we were harmless. We decided they had been watching us with night vision for awhile and on radar and couldn’t imagine why we were sailing in a big circle around Tampa Bay all night long in hardly any wind. About this time, RWB needed a lift to make it through the night. He chugged a Coke and ate a Snickers Bar. No more sleeping for him. Runs and his newly found energy got us through the really light air of the early morning hours. EB took over the helm about 5 am and jibed around for the final leg into the destination of Demons Landing in downtown St. Pete.

We ended an uneventful night at 6:30 am sitting on the boat drinking our beer. Joy got up early and checked our Spot track and saw we had arrived back at the boat ramp. Perfect timing as usual for her. She arrived and we had the boat loaded in 10 minutes and were out of there and headed home for a snooze. 40 nautical miles on the track.

The best wind we had was the first 2 hours until it got dark. Most of the night the wind never got over 5 knots so our 3 knot average speed was respectable due to our dinner stop. So ended our most relaxing night sail. We learned some lessons and remembered how knarly you can feel on a boat when it’s damp and cold. Can’t wait for the real test in less than a month.

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