Whoops! — Big Whoops! Dismasting in Florida Bay By Clifford McKay Stephan
Everything on board my Irwin 34, Misty, was ready to get under way so I decided to up anchor and enjoy another night sail up the Florida west coast from Marathon to Clearwater. It was November 2007. It had been a long nine months sitting on the hook in Boot Key Harbor in the Florida Keys. It never occurred to me my luck was running bad.
nxious to get under way, I didn’t wait for morning. There was plenty of time to clear the shoals north of the Seven-Mile Bridge before the sun set...or was there? Unexpectedly, I ran out of fuel before passing under the Bridge at Boot Key Harbor—I was barely under way. Fuel is never a big concern with me. I didn’t really plan on using the engine, much. After all, sailing is more fun, and sometimes more challenging. I had planned to fuel up on the way out, but what I didn’t plan was docking under sail at the fuel dock, providing the Burdines dockmaster with a big surprise in the process. Nevertheless, the sail out to the Seven Mile bridge on a beam reach seemed ideal. The winds at 10 to 15 knots promised a great trip—if you didn’t mind their northwest direction and the lumpy seas. I cleared Moser Channel that passes through the bridge in one long tack as the sun drifted below the horizon. Before I knew it, the night was black. Navigating the shoals and crab pots north of the bridge in Florida Bay became trickier than I anticipated. Only by making a range of the four radio towers east of Boot Key did the way through the shoals become clear. Even then I was on close watch until the depth finally sounded at 20 feet. When daylight came, I found myself only 25 NM north of the Keys in Florida Bay, bouncing in steep, confused fourto six-foot seas. The last two hours before dawn were spent hove to as something, probably a crab trap, stopped my progress entirely. I never saw what had obviously fouled the rudder and effectively anchored me. Whatever it was just fell off and disappeared about sunrise. Those night hours were the roughest I have spent on Misty, my Irwin 34. Seas ran only 3 to 6 feet, but I had no forward motion. The occasional drop and slam off an odd 10-foot-plus wave shook the rig from masthead to keel all too often. Finally, the sun reappeared, and I got under way again. Misty’s motion eased, and I began to look forward to the day’s sail until I suddenly lost the anchor light...and the mast...and the sails. As I have always suspected: When the mast breaks in two, it is never a good thing. Luckily, neither I nor the vessel were injured. Even better, the closest land was well within motoring range, and I had a full tank of fuel. Things could be worse. Still, I was not feeling very lucky. That masthead anchor light, now gone, had guided my row home in the dinghy on many a night. Best investment I ever made. The simple LED drew little from the batteries but provided a truly visible beacon in the night sky. www.southwindsmagazine.com