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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.


October 2011



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.