The Florida Keys Reef is the only living coral reef in the continental United States and the third largest barrier reef system in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef and the Belize Barrier Reef. It runs along the seaward side of the Florida Keys and is typically about 3-4 miles from the islands. Sombrero Reef lies just 4 miles from Boot Key Harbor. There is a cool lighthouse (one of six along the Florida Keys Reef) sitting on top of the reef and lots of mooring buoys surrounding it. We can sail right up to the reef and hook onto a buoy for an afternoon of snorkeling right off the boat.
An interesting tidbit is that the government has decided these lighthouses are no longer necessary and will be donating them for free to interested non-profits. If there are no takers, they will sell them at auction to the general public. Anyone want to own a lighthouse?
Terrapin tied to a mooring buoy at Sombrero Reef.
One of our favorite restaurants in Marathon is Keys Fisheries. Keys Fisheries is a seafood restaurant/bar, seafood market, and wholesale fishery. They supply most of the Florida restaurants with stone crab caught in traps in local waters. Upstairs is a raw bar that serves fresh stone crab and raw oysters. Do we look happy?
When I purchased new sails for Terrapin, I also bought a spinnaker. The spinnaker is used for downwind sailing when the wind is between 90 and 180 degrees off the bow. Paradoxically dead downwind sailing or “a run” is generally one of the slowest points of sail, mainly because you are relying on your sails to be “pushed” by the wind directly behind them. Conventional main and jib are not really designed for this. Instead, conventional sails are designed to be a curved airfoil, like a vertical airplane wing. The wind passing over the front of the sail provides “forward lift” and propels the boat forward. In some cases, this can propel the boat faster than the wind speed as in the recent Americas Cup catamarans. The spinnaker is a large light balloon like sail that catches the maximum amount of wind from behind to improve downwind sailing performance. It is generally used for light wind of less than 15 knots.
The spinnaker is also somewhat tricky to rig and deploy and I had no experience with them other than reading and watching YouTube videos. We have been on several stretches of long downwind sailing on Terrapin during our recent cruise to the Keys and have been frustrated with the slow speed. Finally, one day I decided to test out the new spinnaker. I think I made every mistake in the book and paid the price. With Laura at the helm, I went to the bow and pulled the spinnaker out of the bow locker. It is in a rather large bag and pretty unwieldly. I hooked it up to a bridle that ran from one bow to the other with a shackle to attach to one of the lower corners of the spinnaker, called the tack. The other lower corner of the spinnaker is called the clew and is where you attach the sheet that runs to the cockpit on the leeward side and controls the shape of the sail. By adjusting both the bridle position side to side and the sheet, I can control the position of the spinnaker and the amount of “ballooning”, or so goes the theory. The spinnaker is in a sock about 40’ long and designed to be raised and unfurled in two steps: 1. Attach the head of the sail to the spinnaker halyard and hoist it up to the top of the mast. 2. Pull on another line running from a cuff around the bottom of the sock to the top of the spinnaker and then back down again. Pulling on this line raises the sock and allows the lightweight nylon spinnaker to unfurl and catch the wind. To douse the spinnaker, you pull the sock back down with the same line. So, I hooked up the tack and clew and raised the sock on the halyard. So far so good. Except that by the time I had done all this, the wind speed had increased to about 15k, gusting to 20. I should have stopped right there. Hindsight is 20/20, right? Well, I raised the sock and all hell broke loose. The sheet running to the cockpit wasn’t secured and came loose, allowing the spinnaker to flap uncontrollably in the strong wind. It started to wrap around the forestay where the genoa is rolled up on a roller furler. I had also left the two genoa sheets attached to the genoa and these quickly became tangled with the spinnaker lines. I tried to bring the sock down but it was jammed. I spent what seemed like an eternity trying to control this crazy flapping spinnaker, but it was probably about 10 minutes. I finally went to the mast and lowered the halyard lowering the whole mess to the trampoline. Exhausted.
- Don’t try to fly the spinnaker in wind stronger than 15 knots, at least until you have plenty of experience.
- Attach the sheet and tack more securely.
- Make absolutely sure the sock is free and clear of all lines and on the proper (leeward) side the forestay.
- Remove the genoa or jib sheets so there is no chance of getting tangled
- Clear the deck of all stuff, fenders, docklines, etc.
- Practice with raising the spinnaker at the dock before attempting to use it under sail.
Well, after digesting and re-enacting the scenario in my mind, I finally got the courage to try it again when we were sailing downwind in much lighter wind. This time it worked perfectly! What a good feeling to pull up the sock and see this beautiful sail catch the wind and feel the boat accelerate.
Flying the spinnaker on Terrapin
Downwind sailing under spinnaker alone
Heading north up the west coast of Florida we were planning on stopping for the night in Marco Island, the same place we stopped coming south a few weeks ago. But then we noticed a small anchorage just south of Marco in a shallow area off Cape Romano. We decided to give it a try. Wow, it turned out to be one of our more memorable anchorages. There is a large exposed sandbar called Second Chance Sandbar. The area is constantly shifting and we had to maneuver very carefully watching our depth gauge. We ended up anchoring close to the Second Chance sandbar but we were way out in the middle of a very large bay with gorgeous views 360 degrees. Second Chance Sandbar turned out to be a “CWA” or Critical Wildlife Area that is a nesting habitat for a variety of seabirds. The other interesting feature of this area is a group of bizarre looking dome houses out in the water that look like they are right out of a Star Wars movie. For an interesting read, Google Cape Romano Dome House and read the Wikipedia page. They were built in the 1980’s as a vacation residence on a small island, but they have been abandoned since the 90’s and the rising sea level is now taking them back.
Second Chance Sandbar from Google Earth
Cape Romano Dome House
We haven’t seen a lot of dolphins on this trip but we finally got a bit of a show one afternoon while anchored off of Chino Island, just off the ICW north of Sanibel Island. There was a group and they were circling around schools of fish in a typical dolphin feeding behavior. I grabbed my camera and managed to get a few shots.
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The J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is part of the United States National Wildlife Refuge System, located in southwestern Florida, on Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico. It is named for the cartoonist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling. You can access it by land from Sanibel Island, but the most extensive part of the refuge is a large expanse of shallow waterways and lagoons which provide habitat for a large number of aquatic birds. We anchored just off the eastern edge of Sanibel Island and took the dinghy into the maze of canals in about 2 feet of water. I brought my new Olympus OMD E-M1 Mark II with a 300mm f4 IS Pro lens to try it out for bird photography. Here are a few examples.
American White Ibis
Boot Key to Shark River
The wind was predicted to shift around coming out of the south for the next few days, so we decided this would be a perfect weather window to head back north from the Keys. It was also a good weather window to head to the Bahamas and our friends Randy and Rose on Contessa Rosa were planning on doing just that. We wished we were also going to the Bahamas, but we need to get the boat in storage by April 15th or so. The sail up to Shark River was great. We had about 15-20 knot winds from our stern and following seas. We sailed most of the way with our sails “wing on wing” with the main let out to port and the genna to starboard. The only negative were the bugs in Shark River. Once the sun went down, we needed to get inside the boat and put screens on all the hatches.
Back Boot Key Harbor
We decided to go back to Boot Key Harbor for a few days and get ready for the sail north to Punta Gorda. We like Boot Key Harbor a lot: super friendly boating community, mooring balls are reasonable at $18.00 a night, the City Marina has good showers and services, and there are lots of businesses close by, like Publix and West Marine. I worked on some wiring projects on Terrapin, we went to Sombrero Beach, and we ate some great seafood at Keys Fisheries.
The weather forecasts all said that the weather would be perfect for sailing across the Florida Bay from Shark River inlet on the lower part of the Florida Mainland to Vaca Key, the middle of the keys where the city of Marathon and Boot Key Harbor is located. The wind was predicted to be 15-20 knots out of the east and we were headed due south. This would put us on a beam reach on a port tack. The Florida Bay is a huge bay made up of the Florida Keys archipelago extending south from the southeast tip of Florida then curving to the west, about 25 miles across from the tip of Florida to Vaca Key. One of the noteworthy features is that the entire bay is shallow, only 10-12 feet deep. That means that the effect of the wind on building waves is magnified significantly. We are used to sailing in deep Caribbean waters in 15-20 knot winds and the sea state is generally mild with long rolling swells. What we discovered in the Bay of Florida was a steep chop of increased period. That made for a bit of an uncomfortable ride. In addition, the wind ended up being 20-30 knots instead of 15-20. So, we found ourselves sailing a beam reach in 20-30 knot winds with fairly rough seas, with boat speeds of 8-10 knots. When I realized the wind speed was that high, I reefed both sails (reducing the sail area) and tried to set a relatively comfortable course, doing a bit of a zig-zag to keep the waves from hitting us directly on the beam.
The other thing we had to deal with was that the bay is full of lobster/crab pots. Fisherman lower the metal trap with a small buoy attached by a rope. If you run over them, the rope can snag on your prop, or rudder. We have dealt with these all over, including the Caribbean, but the effect of the wave chop was that we had a very hard time seeing them in time to avoid them. Well, you guessed it, we snagged not one, but three pots. We were sailing along at 9 knots and all of the sudden we slowed down to 4. I guessed we had snagged a pot, but couldn’t see anything from the deck. So, we dropped the anchor and I went in the water with my mask, snorkel and fins and life vest tied to a line attached to the boat. Sure enough, the starboard prop had not one, but three lobster pot buoys snagged. I was able to unwrap them and set Terrapin free. This delayed our trip about an hour and a half but we still made it into Boot Key Harbor in daylight.
Lobster pots are a real problem in this area. They are everywhere. You have to be on constant watch while sailing or motoring. Nautical charts and books refer to all sorts of “hazards of navigation” but of course there is no charting of where lobster pots are and there are no apparent regulations for where they can be placed. You find them right in the middle of entrances to harbors and well-marked waterways. In fact, the pots probably represent the biggest hazards to navigation as they have the potential of disabling your boat. If your boat is disabled in rough seas near the coast line you could end up on the rocks. Most regulations on the books protect the lobster/crab fisherman. It is a felony to tamper with these pots. However, there needs to be some sensible regulation on where these pots can be placed. At least have some corridors where pots are prohibited so boats and the lobster industry can co-exist.
These guys look harmless, right?
You can count eight pots in this picture.
We are anchored off Bahia Honda State Park inside the old railroad trestle that is now a National Historic monument. The section that is open was removed so sailboats could get inside the bay.
Old RR bridge
Sunset view from TERRAPIN