A Matter of Survival

We’d never seen anything like it. We were comfortably motor sailing north along the Florida coast toward Clearwater Harbor in gentle swells and a light breeze when the wind began to strengthen. We’d been eyeing some approaching black clouds to our west for the past several hours, but the weather app on our phones predicted they would dissipate before reaching us. But when the wind starting gusting to 20 knots, I thought it would be prudent to roll up the sail.

Barely 10 minutes later, the wind starting gusting into the 30’s and the seas began to build. We held our course a while longer, but we were sideways to the gale. As the waves built past six feet, they started rolling the boat severely. We couldn’t continue taking them on our beam or we’d risk being rolled over.

“Turn her into the wind and hold her there!” I shouted to Rhonda at the helm. I had my hands full trying to rescue Eaglet, our dinghy, which we had been towing behind us. Gusts flirting with 40 knots had flipped it upside down, and it was plowing underwater like a giant sea anchor, dragging our speed down below 2 knots. I struggled to get it turned upright again, but the wind was just too much. The best I could do was pull Eaglet’s nose tight against our stern to reduce the immense drag.

It’s just a squall, it will be over in 10 or 15 minutes, we thought. But it didn’t relent. The seas built past 10 feet, and the wind held steady at 35 knots, gusting higher. For almost an hour Rhonda wrestled the helm to keep the boat pointed into the weather, while I fought to maintain my grip on our dinghy’s tow bridle.  We were burying our bow into the huge waves and then rocketing upward at nearly 45 degrees before slamming down and plowing into the next approaching roller. The sea began disassembling our dinghy, sucking out the inflatable floor, which was now dragging behind. My hands started to cramp from clutching the bridle.

This was no squall. We didn’t know what it was. There was no lightning or thunder, and hardly any rain. Just an angry black sky and gale force winds that just went relentlessly on and on. For an hour our course had taken us directly offshore, out into the Gulf. That’s exactly where I didn’t want us to be heading. We had to turn the boat and make a run for it. Rhonda didn’t think she could do it. I couldn’t let go of the dinghy. And the wind and waves just kept coming.

We finally managed to get another line connected to Eaglet, which I was able to lead to one of our deck winches. This let us winch the flipped dinghy tightly against our stern, and freed me to take the wheel. With a hope and a prayer, I spun Eagle Too around and starting running downwind. We’d traveled far enough offshore that our course to Clearwater Harbor now put the wind and seas on our port quarter instead of directly on the beam. The rudder fought me with every passing wave, but the pounding stopped and I could hold the course, although the boat rolled deeply with each swell.

It took another hour to make the entrance channel, the winds and seas persisting. As we approached the coast, the shoaling water caused the swells to lift the boat and throw it surging forward. I struggled to maintain control to avoid the channel markers. But finally, after two hours, the wind began to relent. Thirty-five knots became 30, and then finally dropped back into the mid-20’s. We cleared the channel, passed under the bridges, and made the turn into Clearwater Harbor Marina, arriving safely at the dock. But Rhonda was shaking like a leaf, and our two hour survival struggle left us feeling like we’d been to war.  Post Traumatic Storm Disorder set in, leaving us physically and emotionally drained.

Early that morning, it had seemed like a sensible plan. We had about 36 miles to cover, from Sarasota Bay to the Clearwater Municipal Marina, where we wanted to stage for our crossing of the northeastern Gulf to Apalachicola. The weather report called for winds of less than five knots and one foot seas. Rather than have to deal with a half dozen draw bridges in the ICW, it looked so much quicker to just head out the mouth of Tampa Bay and run north along the coast to Clearwater. We’d had several days of afternoon and evening squalls, but they passed in 15 minutes. I felt pretty sure we’d be safely docked before any weather built up, but if we were to encounter a squall, I thought we’d be better able to handle them offshore where we’d have room to maneuver, than within the narrow confines of the ICW. Nothing is more frustrating than having to mill around in circles for a half hour waiting for the next scheduled bridge opening while watching a squall approach.

But we hadn’t counted on encountering whatever in the hell it was that was waiting for us out there. Something that would turn a calm day and flat seas into two solid hours of gale force winds and huge breaking waves. Something that felt like we were tangled up in the heart of a tropical storm. Something that delivered the worst day we’ve ever experienced on the water, by far.

In retrospect, I guess we’d have been better off in the ICW. We’d have probably been blown out of the channel and driven aground. But it’s all mud and soft sand in this part of Florida, and that’s why we pay for SeaTow coverage, afterall.

But in the final analysis, nothing broke (we were able to put Eaglet back together), nobody got hurt (other than shaken nerves and a blow to our confidence), and we do have a good story to tell.

No pictures though. Unfortunately, we were just a little too busy to stop and take storm selfies. I’d say maybe next time, but we’re both sincerely hoping we’ll never see anything like that ever again. Ever.

8 thoughts on “A Matter of Survival

  1. Carey

    Quite a story Robert. Thanks for sharing it. My Rhonda and I had a brief encounter with 10-12 footers when we had to turn northeast into the shallow channel leading to Destin East Pass. Those waves we had been surfing from Panama City turned into big breakers, and were certainly not friendly when we were abeam to them.

  2. Keith & Nicki, s/v Sionna

    Well done crew, in some nasty conditions! It’s amazing how quickly the Gulf can get mean – something we’ve been surprised by once ourselves.
    I’m sure you’ve thought of it already, but having the dinghy on deck (or in davits if you have them) is now our policy for any passage out of protected waters – regardless of the forecast. It’s a pain sometimes, but we’ve been awfully glad of it on more than one occasion!

    1. Robert Post author

      Normally we keep our dinghy on the foredeck when underway, but since my accident it’s been easier to get around on the foredeck without having to climb over the dinghy to get to the anchor locker. We were definitely planning to put it on deck before heading across the Gulf to Apalachicola. At least we had the dinghy stripped, i.e. the engine, fuel tank and oars were all removed.

  3. Tim Akey

    I am glad you two are in one piece and the boat undamaged. Truth to tell, the more stories I hear like that, added to the times we have taken a completely unexpected thrashing (though nothing near that bad) have me wondering if a trawler doing the Great Loop might not be the way to go. I suppose there are unexpected hazards regardless of the path one chooses, but I don’t know that any of us came out here to have our brains beat in and the wits scared out of us at the same time. Take care guys, you are almost home.

  4. Morgan Toland

    Marty and I are thankful you are safe. We did the same in our trawler in April- ducked out into the Gulf at Tampa Bay on our way to Clearwater and our experience was similar. Six foot + seas beat us for several hours, even though the weather reports predicted otherwise. Our nose was jumping way up with each wave. We were grateful when we finally reached the bridge. We’d touched bottom in a pop up storm the day prior, awaiting a bridge opening that was delayed due to lightning, so we’d made a similar decision to travel on the outside. What a day! We learned a lot about our boat and its capabilities. Glad all is well for you!


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